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By Glenda Frank

"The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" written by Rolin Jones, directed by Jackson Gay.
At the Atlantic Theatre Company, 336 W. 20th St., NYC, Sept. 19-Oct. 15, 2005. (closed)
212-239-6200, 212-691-5919 x126 or http://www.atlantictheater.org for tickets.

"War in Paramus" by Barbara Dana, directed by Austin Pendleton.
Produced by Abingdon Theatre Company at the June Havoc Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., NYC, Oct. 7-Nov. 6, 2005. (closed)
212-868-4444 for tickets.

Is it the new school semester that brings two stories of desperate daughters (in compelling productions) to the off-Broadway stage? Or is it the success of David Auburn's "Proof," which has not only moved with fanfare from stage to film but also brought us a new, iconoclastic hero, the brilliant but distraught young woman. Certainly the two feuding co-eds of the hit musical "Wicked" have added their own spin to the prototype. This season, Rolin Jones's Jennifer ("The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow") is buzzing up the mix while Barbara Dunn's sisters in "War in Paramus" are grim reminders of what life offered in the 1970s.

Jennifer Marcus, the 22 year old adopted daughter of a frenzied account manager (Marcia Saunders) and a stay-at-home dad (Michael Cullen), finds herself on a double-quest. She is convinced that finding her birth mother in China (Marcia Saunders) will reboot her life and cure her of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). But she is terrified to step out of her front door. And in this dilemma begins this high-voltage, high-tech adventure – located in the quasi-comical conjunction between real and cyberspace. It's an unexplored geography that most of us inhabit – and that's part of the fascination of the play.

Julienne Hanzelka Kim's Jennifer is a bundle of adorable energy who easily wins our completely loyalty, even when she slates her mom – who has abuse issues of her own. Jennifer is so brilliant that a top theoretician (Remy Auberjonois) who was mentoring her before her OCD collapse remains a voice mail away. We watch how Jennifer, through the Internet, cleverly seduces him into welcoming her back into his life and then into creating an impossibly convoluted plan for her. His payoff is a conference paper on her cyborg project. With ease and a little deadline hysteria, Jennifer programs our (USA) missiles to interface with a satellite, despite Pentagon failure. Then using spare military parts (her payment), she created a robot, Jenny Chow, to find her birth mother. But the doubleganger comedy, sci-fi exploits and international rejection scene are more than a diverting form of neo-magic realism. They cap the family drama, and at the end of the second act, Jenny, even more OCD and frenzied, has embarked on an adult quest and is reaching out to a new understanding.

Director Jackson Gay plays "Jenny Chow" like a symphony, with Jennifer's frenzied speeches and movements against the slower paces of her dad, her dull best friend (Ryan King), and the borg herself (Eunice Wong). The clipped dialogue of the military Col. Hubbard and the rants of Dr. Yakunin (both Remy Auberjonois) add other harmonies. In a cast that is uniformly impressively, Auberjonois and Kim are magnets. Takeshi Kata's set and Tyler Micoleau's lighting created a fast-moving feast.

"Jenny Chow" has been snowballing since 2002, when the classroom production was pitched to South Coast Repertory Theatre by one of the playwright's teachers at Yale. Rolin Jones is currently transforming a 2004 comedy "The Jammer," about a roller derby skater, into a musical with Tim Acito, creator of the off-beat "Zanna, Don't!" He has sold a pilot titled "Pilgrimage" to Fox and is a staff writer for "Weeds," a Showtime series with Mary Louise Parker as a soccer mom who deals pot. Let's hope theatre can hold his attention.

Further uptown, another Jennifer and her sister Thelma Gardner in "War in Paramus" are also crying out for help but without resources. This first play by Barbara Dana, a prize-winning author of children's books, is an acid look at the middle-class and their frightened children. The beautiful Jennifer (Lisa McCormick) seems ok until she finally lets her hair down to her law-school fiance (Jeremy Beiler), who has made his plans. Her rebellion and capitulation hold no surprises. Interspersing war bulletins and other 1970s news items makes it clear that America is trapped in wrong turns, but the items do not transform the family stereotypes into living people.

Thelma (Anne Letscher) is the most damaged Gardner. Unable to attend classes or clean her room, she is easily persuaded to be the lookout for a robbery and then commit arson. The arson was too much of a surprise. Letscher's performance is far more convincing than the script, which is short on insights.

But the play holds the stage well thanks to Austin Pendleton's direction and a cast who knows what they are about. The awkward silences are awkward almost to the point of comedy but not quite. The mom's predictable obsession with decorating is balanced by actor Kate Bushmann's ready charm. The knife is more menacing for the characters' ignoring the danger, and the fiance more wimpy for his overreaction. Even Matthew Arkin as the spaced-out dad communicates at once the possibility of help for Thelma and his refusal. [Glenda Frank]



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