Photo by Ken Howard/SCRIt was Jean-Paul Sartre—the google-eyed French existentialist—who asserted, "I am the author of all the events and circumstances around me." It was apparent in Sartre's philosophy that such authorship was not unique; all humans are storytellers. We have no choice but to tell ourselves stories about ourselves. The question is whether those stories lead to actions that are based on the premise of our heroism or of our victimization. The former lead to heroic action; the latter, based on what Sarte called "bad faith," to hopelessness and waste.
While only we can really hear our story, everyone around us can see it. While we're mouthing the words written by the playwright in our head, everyone around us is seeing the result.
Exhibit A: Jennifer Marcus, the intensely fascinating protagonist at the heart of Rolin Jones' equally intense and fascinating new play, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. To the rest of the world, Jennifer has it all. She's frenetically intelligent, personable, funny, sexy and sassy. But in her heart of hearts, Jennifer believes she is stupid, ugly and worthless. The story that Jennifer tells herself manifests itself in Jennifer's obsessive-compulsive disorder. A computer junkie, she constantly sprays her keyboard with disinfectant and is utterly incapable of walking out her front door.
Those around her—including her parents (her overachieving Type-A mom and quirky, everybody's-buddy dad) and stoner friend Todd—don't understand why Jennifer, who is so smart and has so much potential, can't walk out her front door or hold down a job for more than a few days. Dad and Todd accept it; they love Jennifer for who she is, and that's enough. But Mom can't accept it. She believes Jennifer chooses to stay indoors because she's lazy, stubborn or just plain weak.
The reality is that Jennifer is in deep pain, much of it stemming from the fact she's a native Chinese adopted by two whitebreads from Calabasas. She doesn't know herself; she yearns for some genuine sense of connection. She can't seem to find it in Calabasas, so she yearns to return to her native China. That ambition leads her, in one of the more ingenious twists of a playwright's imagination, to "create" Jenny Chow.
That's the blueprint for Jones' intricately composed and sharply written play. But there's a lot more to it. It's a deliriously giddy comedy on one hand but also a knock-you-on-your ass domestic drama on the other. It's a young-woman-in-crisis play; it's a 21st-century robots-are-among-us play. It's painfully, poignantly real and bizarrely surreal.
It's all those things. But ultimately, The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, like most great plays, is all about home. Or the lack thereof. It's about displacement, about alienation—from those around us and from ourselves. But as funny and intelligent and flat-out weird as Jones' play gets, there's also an undeniable sense of sadness to his writing. As gifted as Jennifer is, she realizes there is a flaw in her design, something that prevents her from getting what she truly wants. And while those around her desperately yearn for Jennifer's freedom, Jennifer isn't up to the task of personal liberation.
Jones' script is wonderful, and it's augmented greatly by a ferociously talented cast and director David Chambers. This kind of play is a departure from the work that Chambers has directed recently at SCR—Tartuffe, The School for Wives, The Hollow Lands. It's not epic in scope or conventionally stylized. But the fact that this is such a visually and thematically engaging production is proof that Chambers' idiosyncratic visual and dramatic storytelling techniques work as well for a cutting-edge contemporary play as they do for more traditional theater.
The cast is equally up to snuff. Linda Gehringer, as Jennifer's mother, Adele, gets to show a far more fiery and downright mean side than many of the character roles she usually gets. Like every role she performs, Gehringer brings an innate sense of dignity and pride to Adele, but this time around, you get the sense that the pride stems from weakness rather than strength. The scenes between the anally retentive mother and the OCD-afflicted daughter are powerful and deeply moving. You get how similar these two women are, even though they're more than a world apart.
The captivatingly talented Melody Butiu (Jennifer) and April Hong (as Jennifer's android double, Jenny) deliver stellar performances, as does J.D. Cullum in four recurring roles.
But the star of this show is the playwright. For in Jennifer Marcus and her stand-in Jenny Chow, Jones has created a provocative metaphor about the search for identity and how, sometimes, the least capable judge of one's self is one's self.
Jennifer ends the play still convinced she's fucked-up —still believing that version of her story. She has banished Jenny (the external manifestation of every strong and wonderful thing about herself) but feels terrible about rejecting that part of her, about allowing her private demons to royally fuck up something so beautiful.
So maybe Jennifer ends the play a step closer to absorbing one of the most invaluable lessons that any human being can ever hope to learn: that our fears and insecurities are real, that they will always be with us because they make us who we are. But instead of resisting them and ruining everything around us because of them, we learn to accept them and maybe even appreciate them.
It depends on your version of the story, but it's entirely possible the flaws in our own designs aren't necessarily enemies out to destroy us; they are our friends. They are our guides along our own weird journey. And all we can really hope for—if we are Jennifer Marcus, or if there are Jennifer Marcuses in our lives whom we truly care about—is that those souls eventually wake up to themselves and realize how much power and joy is contained in a genuinely flawed soul.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow at South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through May 18. $27-$54.
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