Comedy can move an audience in a way that a drama just can’t manage to do.
When it comes to a straight tear jerker, the audience knows what they’re getting into: depressing story arcs, heartbreak, probably someone dying. If a character starts coughing in the first act, you know they’re going to die of consumption by the time the third act wraps all up. The audience can see the sadness coming from a mile away and they can put up walls to keep it from hitting them hard.
But comedy doesn’t allow that time to prepare for the sadness. Instead it lulls you in with laughs and absurdity. By the time it hits with the raw heartbreak and sadness, the viewer isn’t ready for it. It’s like the playwright has landed a sucker punch to the solar plexus.
Vintage Theater’s production of “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, An Instant Message with Excitable Music” is the perfect example of a comedy that builds to a dramatic punch in the gut. It might not be expected from a play that features a genius with obsessive compulsive disorder, a robot with a propensity for cheerleading, a stoner pizza delivery boy and a Mormon learning about sex over instant messenger. But that’s why it’s such a success.
The entire play revolves around Jennifer Marcus, a woman in her early 20s that was adopted as a baby from China and lives with her white parents in southern California. While she is a certifiable genius, the OCD she’s developed recently doesn’t even allow her to leave the house let alone keep a job at the local mall.
While she’s living her life in her bedroom, she struggles with her identity and longs to learn about the mother that gave her up for adoption. So she’s been searching online and using whatever means necessary, including participating in some online friskiness with a Mormon who’s working in China, to find her birth mother.
Faced with the prospect of actually being able to locate her birth mother in China, Jennifer quickly realizes her crippling agoraphobia is going to pose a problem with getting on an airplane. So what is a genius to do? Build an android, of course, to act as her proxy in China.
The play moves between the present and the past quickly and Vintage’s production does a seamless job of taking us back and forth between the beginning of Jennifer’s adventure to the current state of affairs she finds herself in. It isn’t an easy task to bring this story to life, especially in the limited space of a black box theater. But the production is up to it and director Mark Pergola uses the small stage to help heighten the intensity of the comedy and the eventual emotional punch.
Jennifer is played deftly by Min Kyung Kim. The actress should be commended for how she handles her character’s OCD. In the hands of a lesser talent, Jennifer’s condition might become a overblown caricature played for straight laughs. Kim instead portrays Jennifer’s OCD as just another layer in a complex character. As the center of the production, Kim is constantly on stage and handles the marathon of acting without ever letting on to the effort it takes to be involved in every scene.
While Kim is running a marathon with this play, the rest of the cast is running the 100 meter dash, popping in and out quickly to deliver a well-timed joke and push the story along. It speaks to the work put into the play by the cast and crew that the timing never suffers from having so many characters entering and exiting. Andrew Uhlenhopp, who plays a series of characters including a Mormon learning about sex from Jennifer while chatting online, steals the show when he pops up in various locations. And Margaret Norwood, who plays Jennifer’s adoptive mother, is able to elicit both animosity and sympathy for her character, which speaks to her talent.
By the time the android named Jenny Chow, played perfectly by Emily Gerhard, makes her appearance, the audience is completely invested in the comedy they’ve been watching. But be warned, all of the jokes are setting up for one heck of an emotional punch. And it’s worth getting hit with it.