Ms. Roboto

Photo: Carol Rosegg/Courtesy of Boneau Bryan Brown; Illustration by Sean McCabe

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow is, like its heroine, a twitchy, excitable thing; whip-smart, if sometimes erratic; and prone to bad behavior. They are both, ultimately, hard not to like. Though the play doesn’t always work—too convoluted at the beginning, too overwrought at the end—it nevertheless marks the arrival of a bright, original comic voice.

The young playwright Rolin Jones combines a fanciful imagination with a barbed sense of humor that suggests—a shot in the dark here—the shaping influence of endless hours of eighties TV. Jennifer Marcus (Julienne Hanzelka Kim), a Chinese girl adopted by an American couple, wants to find her birth mother, but an antisocial cocktail of agoraphobia and OCD keeps her from leaving the house. Luckily, she’s also a robotics genius, able to design and build, in her bedroom, the most sophisticated machine the world has ever seen: a Robo-Me.

As Jennifer’s quest leads her into cybercontact with all sorts of oddballs and eccentrics, Jones’s sense of humor yields laugh after peculiar laugh. Consider Terrence, a Mormon missionary who goes online at a Taco Bell in Shanghai to trade genealogical data for nudie pics. Or Preston, the military contractor from Georgia who thinks Jennifer’s only the second good thing to come out of California, the avocado being the first. Or admire Jones’s most salutary invention, Dr. Yakunin, the amped-up scientist who helps her build the robot. With an impossible accent, unsalvageable clothes, and, as Jennifer puts it, a “Shakespearean sense of betrayal,” he’s an inspired lunatic. Jones began writing this play at the Yale School of Drama, and you’d think that any comic riff at New Haven’s expense would seem too clubby (and too easy). But coming from Dr. Yakunin, who is ashamed to be stuck there, the bile leads to hilarity: a profane comparison of Yale’s computer lab to a goat barn, for instance.

In Jackson Gay’s lively if uneven production, Jones’s weirdos get a boost from their interpreter: All three roles are played by the outrageously funny Remy Auberjonois, who may be delivering this year’s answer to Dan Fogler’s career-making turn in last season’s 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. The kiddie speller’s concern for his sinuses meets its match in Dr. Yakunin’s account of his run-in with some bad New Haven Thai food. Auberjonois recounts the ordeal with the kind of offended dignity available only to a tenured academic battling a 40-foot tapeworm.

Beneath the yuks, Jones has written a play about the fractious lives of mothers and daughters. It’s the old story: Mom thinks daughter is a wastrel slacker; wastrel slacker is actually up in her room designing missiles for the Pentagon. Yet even without the flying robots and frantic IMing, the play would feel briskly current. Jennifer is the model 21st-century girl: She has the means to communicate with anyone anywhere, but not with her own family. It’s a sign of Jones’s skill as a comic dramatist that he manages to fold all the play’s concerns—family, technology, distances both physical and emotional—into one affectingly ironic line, and to have that line draw a laugh. Away on a business trip, as usual, Jennifer’s mom tries to develop some kind of relationship with her faraway daughter by calling home. “Isn’t it incredible,” she asks, “they can make a phone that works from the plane?”

The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow
By Rolin Jones
Atlantic Theater Company
Through October 16

Ms. Roboto