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The Solid Center of 'Intelligent Design'
Eunice Wong Keeps Pace With Nonstop Role

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

Her favorite moment of the show is the five-second blackout at the end, before the lights come up for the curtain call, when the audience knows it's over but is too shy (or raw) to clap.

In that dark, delicious silence, she sheds the skin of Jennifer Marcus, the agoraphobic obsessive-compulsive who conducts her life via ethernet in "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" at Studio Theatre. When the lights pop back on, she stands from her desk, bleary-eyed from Jenny's meltdown in the last scene, and greets the instantaneous standing ovation as Eunice Wong, mild-mannered actress.

"She's got a bright future," a throaty voice predicts on the way out.

"That performance is unbelievable," murmurs a white-haired lady, dabbing her eye with a balled-up hankie.

Back in the greenroom Sunday night, Wong plucks out her contacts and slides black-rimmed glasses onto her full-moon face. She's got an 11:45 p.m. Greyhound to Manhattan to catch. Checks to deposit, rent to pay, vitamins to buy, then back to Washington on Wednesday for more "Jenny Chow," which has been extended through Aug. 14. She scoops makeup paraphernalia into a plastic bag.

"I don't really wear makeup for this show since I sweat like a pig," she says, shaping her shiny black hair into a ponytail. "It just doesn't stay on my face."

For Wong, 28, the show is a two-hour sprint. The only time she leaves the stage is to reenter seconds later through a different door. When the lights come up at the top of the show, she is perched at the desk as 22-year-old Jennifer Marcus, fingers tap-dancing on a computer keyboard, vocalizing her Instant Message conversation with the rat-a-tat delivery of a machine gun.

Then she engages in the cyber-seduction of a Mormon missionary who's tracking down Jenny's birth parents in China.

Then talks hands-free to a defense contractor who supplies her with robot parts in exchange for help rearranging missile components.

Then has screeching matches with her workaholic-alcoholic mother, who can't understand why she wants to find her biological parents.

Then builds a sentient robot to fly to China to look for them.

In between, there are the extensive, "Hamlet"-esque monologues with a hysterical modern bent. The compulsive hand-washing and flossing, the Lysoling of every doorknob and tabletop. The panicking when forced to step outside her house. And, finally, the devastating burnout just before the blackout.

Thanks in part to Wong's intense, aerobic performance as Jennifer Marcus, Secondstage -- Studio's nonunion space catering to conceptual works -- has a hit on its hands.

"The play is Jennifer Marcus, so that is a challenge for any actress, and she is able to sustain it," says Artistic Director Keith Baker.

But in the greenroom, Wong is terse, cool, her cadence measured, possibly from four years of conditioning at Juilliard. She has two supportive parents who moved from Hong Kong to Toronto a year before she was born, a younger brother who just graduated from the University of Toronto. A tiny studio apartment on New York's Upper West Side. The obligatory guest spots on "Law & Order" and "Sex and the City." Stage gigs from the Berkshires to Brooklyn, and now her D.C. debut.

Dare we say Eunice Wong appears . . . well-adjusted?

"I'm not that much more social than Jennifer is, actually," she says, sitting cross-legged in front of her vanity. "You can go from small things, like I type really fast. And I'm an oral hygiene freak. And I actually do very much understand her desire to stay inside her room all the time. I guess I really enjoy my own company. I like being alone."

No, really, she does. Before starting "Jenny Chow" rehearsals in June, Wong spent two weeks in a monastery in the Chama Canyon wilderness of New Mexico -- doing absolutely nothing, reveling in the silence and solitude.

"I guess that's not normal for an actor," she says, looking a little guilty after recounting the experience.

The other special skills on her résumé aren't that normal, either. Fives years of Wu Mei kung fu (she warms up onstage before the show with her Chinese broadsword). Speaks Cantonese and a bit of Mandarin, French and Lakota (from having played Sitting Bull in high school, when she fell for acting). Retains the same even keel while adoring Proust (working through Volume 5 now) and Puccini (used to want to be an opera singer) as she does talking tattoos (hers is a dragon on her left forearm). And she's great with reptiles and rodents (but not bugs).

Yeah, okay, but what is she bad at?

"I can't do the Charleston," Wong says after a moment. "And I'm not a very good cook. I make crunchy rice."

So this is the woman behind the mania on Studio Theatre's Secondstage: contained in front of a reporter, a supernova in front of an audience.

"Jenny Chow" writer Rolin Jones can attest to it. He first met Wong in 2002 at Yale, where she was the chorus leader in "Iphigeneia at Aulis" and he was a student working as a stagehand.

"She has, I think, enormous stage presence," Jones says. "I think she's naturally built to play in, like, you know, a 2,000-seat house -- she should be playing Medea or something like that."

She's done Sophocles and Aeschylus. She's been Antigone in "Antigone," Viola in "Twelfth Night" and Anya in "The Cherry Orchard." She's also played Anna May Wong in "China Doll" and Hope, the lead, in "An Infinite Ache," both roles for Asian actors. And although work has been steady since graduating from Juilliard in 1999, Wong is mindful that a complex, ethnically specific role like Jennifer Marcus is a rare find.

"It's hard to really assess now how much of an issue it is because there's definitely a movement towards nontraditional casting in a lot of theaters," she says. "So I think there's definitely pros and cons. There's been a lot of progress." She pauses. "There's a lot more to go."

In the meantime she wants to play Emily in "Our Town" before she gets too old, and the juicy roles in Shakespeare when she does. But she'll have at least two more months of dealing with Jennifer Marcus. She got the call Monday that the Atlantic Theatre Company wants her to play Jenny Chow, the titular robot that Marcus creates, in the New York production. It previews a scant 2 1/2 weeks after Studio's run is scheduled to end. Frenzied genius at 14th and P for now, cool-headed doppelganger in Chelsea for the fall.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company