Photo by Ken Howard/ SCRThere were some riveting moments on local stages this year—funny riveting (John Beane as Lady Macbeth delivering a hallucinogenic soliloquy to a Hostess Twinkie in an early production of Insurgo Theater's late-night theatrical talk show Kill Your Television), disturbing riveting (Julie Jagusiak's harrowingly graphic account of eating a man's ass-hole—delivered to her deaf grandmother—in Ken Urban's Haloat Rude Guerrilla) and poignant riveting (the final, haunting image of Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, produced at South Coast Repertory, in which a Jewish family gathers around a dinner table to honor a marriage while, half a world away, the Third Reich prepares to pull the trigger on its Final Solution).
But the best moments of the 2003 theater year followed Rolin Jones' fascinating new The Intelligence of Jenny Chow,which received a stellar production in May at South Coast Repertory. Everyone around her knows that Jennifer is bright, attractive and funny, but Jennifer tells herself she's dumb, ugly, weak and worthless. She's a computer guru with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She sprays her keyboard with disinfectant and can't stomach the thought of going into the dangerous outdoors. How then to find her biological parents? Jennifer builds "Jenny," her doppelganger, and sends it off to China to face rejection. Upon Jenny's return, Jennifer exiles her robotic double, and retreats into the familiar darkness of her life.
Jones' writing is powerful, the production was pitch-perfect—and my head was in a weird place that opened me to the play's themes: that the "flaws" in our design make us the beautiful creatures we are; and, maybe most simply and importantly, that it's necessary to investigate the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, to determine whether these stories serve us (as the existentialists put it) and whether they're the stories we truly want to be living.
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I continued to live with the play long after I left the theater. It helped me deal with a personal problem I had allowed to torment me incessantly. It supplied the fuel for two plays I wrote later in the year. And it really hit me right before Thanksgiving, when, on my way to New York City to officiate at the wedding of two friends, I struck up a conversation with a rabbi—the living embodiment of more than 2,500 years of collected wisdom from Abraham to Lewis Black—standing in front of me in line.
I asked the rabbi for something to use in the wedding. He thought for a moment, and then observed that there are some 400 commandments in Judaism, but not one mention of rights. We do not have the right to be loved, respected or helped. We are, however, commanded by God to love, respect and help those in distress. It's all about the danger of expectations, he said. In a marriage, as in any relationship, it's the expectations that poison the union.
Rather than expecting anything, the rabbi said, give yourself fully and completely. As long as each partner is giving, the rabbi said, everything is good.
Movie critics doubling as Hollywood publicity agents almost describe a certain kind of film as "the feel-good movie of the year!" I bow to their genius: Jenny Chow ends in darkness and retreat, and yet really was the feel-good play of the year. How can something so depressing be so good for you?