The air conditioning in Studio Theatre may be working overtime these days, but the fresh breeze blowing through the place has nothing to do with capacitors or compressors. No, the real source of the coolness is man, not machine: one Rolin Jones, a young playwright of uncommon wit and talent.
If his delightfully inventive play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" is any indication, Jones, who graduated last year from Yale Drama School, has made a felicitous career choice. The production, directed by David Muse with a zesty affinity for the writer's eccentric sensibility, arrives as a bona fide summer surprise. It sets off just the kind of tingles that might be brought on by a spoonful of banana split.
The piece yields at times to preciousness -- its central conceit is the assembling of a lifelike robot in a bedroom in the San Fernando Valley -- but any excesses are forgivable. They're to be expected, in fact, of a dramatist still experimenting with how far his seriocomic gifts can take him. Jones packs a dizzying array of ideas and insights and gimmicks into the two hours of "Jenny Chow." Yet the evening succeeds because he carries it all off in such ferociously entertaining style.
The playwright also generously doles out a plum assignment to each of the cast members. (Although the play is part of Studio's Secondstage program, supposedly for actors of lesser experience, the performances are among the most accomplished of the year.) All six actors are swell, and three in particular are sensational: Eunice Wong as Jennifer, the robot-builder; James Flanagan, playing her stoner/pizza-deliveryman friend Todd, and Cameron McNary, in a passel of madcap Peter Sellers-type supporting roles, breathe helium into Jones's piquant notions.
As to the premise -- okay, here goes: "Jenny Chow" is about this Asian American whiz kid with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a deeply troubled genius who frantically sprays Lysol on everything even as she does missile systems R&D for the government from her home PC. It seems, too, that Jennifer, adopted as a baby in China by an American couple (Charlotte Akin and David Rothman), is so lost and unhappy at 22 that she fixates on finding salvation through the woman who relinquished her. She's also petrified of leaving the house, however, and so she builds Jenny Chow (Mia Whang), a surrogate Jennifer devoid of dysfunction, to take the journey to China in her place.
It's a lot of exposition, but thanks in part to Muse's imaginative staging, not nearly as dense as it sounds. It helps, too, that Jones anchors all the whimsy in the touching evocation of Jennifer's despair, and that Wong is able to balance so sensitively the arrogant and desperate facets of Jennifer's nature.
Blythe Quinlan's marvelous set -- the walls and floor of Studio's Milton Theatre are covered in technical-looking blueprints and adorned with a genius's random scribblings -- is a reflection of the cerebral domain of both connection and chaos in which Jennifer dwells. At times, four doors cut out of the set are thrown open simultaneously, a seemingly harmless act that is actually a prelude to terror, as it exposes Jennifer to the dreaded outside world. All through "Jenny Chow," there are reminders of the tension between Jennifer's scientific virtuosity and her irrational fears. And an audience comes clearly to understand how her obsessive need for superficial order is the mask for an explosive inner turmoil.
The play, which bowed in Southern California in 2003, is also about looking for the perfect parent no one ever gets. Jones paints an almost irredeemably grim portrait of Jennifer's volatile standoff with adoptive mother Adele, an achievement-oriented businesswoman whose compassion for her disturbed daughter has dried up. Akin is fine, though Jones makes her seem unnecessarily cruel: Returning from a business trip, she tells her daughter that she bought her a $400 dress. The hitch is she's left it by the garage and wants to force Jennifer to go outside to get it. (Jones's grasp of foreign adoption is a bit naive, too; it's a rare family that concludes that the way to handle the story of a child's origins is to make things up.)
Overall, however, Jones invents funny encounters for characters that are sharply defined and endearingly human (except of course for synthetic Jenny, whom Whang invests with poker-faced innocence). Bong-toting Todd, a lovable slacker, is irresistible in the hands of Flanagan, also excellent as a bullied teen in Round House Theatre's "columbinus." The protean McNary offers nifty turns as a frazzled emigre Russian scientist and, even better, as a Mormon proselytizer whose racy instant messaging with Jennifer gives new meaning to "missionary position."
The music and lighting of Matthew Suttor and John Burkland are subtle enhancements of a production with too many charming epiphanies to list. All right, here's one: In the play's aha! moment, when a disembodied arm finally begins to respond to Jennifer's keyboard commands, the fingers are soon replicating a gesture familiar to "Star Trek" fans everywhere. Which now prompts this heartfelt wish for the intelligent designer of "Jenny Chow": Mr. Jones, live long and prosper.
The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, by Rolin Jones. Directed by David Muse. Costumes, Yvette M. Ryan; sound, Daniel Baker. Approximately 2 hours. Through July 31 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.