A fanciful slice-of-life story
Rolin Jones lives in a $400-a-month apartment above a noisy pub in New Haven, Conn. An unpleasant odor of baked potato often rises to his room, and many a night his floorboards throb with the bass line of Warren Zevon’s pounding rock song “Lawyers, Guns and Money.”
But in his nascent career as a playwright, Jones has just landed in the penthouse, via the express elevator. South Coast Repertory is staging the premiere of “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow,” his fantastical play about an agoraphobic young genius who, homebound in Calabasas, builds a flying, thinking robot replica of herself to seek out her birth mother in China. After celebrating the play’s opening this weekend, Jones, 30, will fly back to New Haven to finish his second year at the Yale School of Drama.
Call it the Improbable Ascent of Rolin Jones. He would not be enjoying this uncommonly sudden debut on a major regional stage -- one closely watched as a leading incubator of new plays and emerging playwrights -- if he had not spent a couple of years during his aimless post-adolescence delivering pizzas in the San Fernando Valley.
Speaking over the phone recently from his apartment, Jones was an avid conversational tour guide to his “10 years of wandering” -- the many crisscrosses and switchbacks during his 20s that led him to where he is now. He grew up in a large, unhappy, blended family in Woodland Hills, his mother a teacher at Pierce College, his father a corporate executive from whom he has been long estranged. His life raft was the drama department at El Camino Real High School.
After four years studying filmmaking and English at Cal State Northridge, he followed a girlfriend to Chicago, then landed in Santa Fe for three months after she had a nervous breakdown and went to an alternative healing center there. With nothing to do, Jones wrote his first play, “Once by the Pacific,” about Generation X-ers housesitting at a Malibu beach house. It had a production at Cal State Northridge in 1998 and proved to be Jones’ ticket into Yale. But he disowns it now. He dismisses all his pre-"Jenny Chow” output as “unbelievably boring plays about white people sitting around and talking forever.” He was determined to try his hand at “a theater of wonder -- getting things out of living rooms, making them move and dazzle.”
He arrived at Yale in September 2001 and soon his teacher, Lynn Nottage, was calling for script ideas. (By coincidence, Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” is playing on South Coast’s Segerstrom Stage while “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” premieres a few steps away in the Argyros.) Jones reached back to his pizza-running days, when a delivery brought him to the home of a girl who had been very popular at his high school. Now she was fighting compulsive disorders that made it hard for her to get out of the house. Jones kindled a friendship with her, finding a kind of comfort in knowing that he wasn’t the only one having trouble adjusting to post-adolescence. With incandescent technical genius as a fictional add-on, the girl became Jennifer Marcus, the protagonist of “Jenny Chow.” Jones wrote himself into the play as Todd, Jennifer’s dim but loyal sidekick who delivers pizzas in an old Dodge Dart Swinger with the roof sawed off, just as the playwright did.
But what would Jennifer search for through Jenny Chow, her robotic alter ego? A mother, decided Jones. He was yearning for his own mom, who died the year before he started drama school. They had been estranged, then reconciled in the year before her death. And where would this mother be? In China. For two years before grad school, he had worked for a trade show executive who went there to adopt an infant daughter. Setting was no problem. The script is affectionately peppered with street names and place names of “my beloved Woodland Hills” with just a smidgen of poetic license taken. Jenny’s first test flight ends with an unplanned splashdown in a municipal pool in Serrania Park. In fact, there is no pool in that Woodland Hills park, but Jones liked the ring of its name; “Shoup Park,” the place he was actually thinking of, wouldn’t do.
On the fast track
Jones, who is white, said he had no qualms about writing the story of an Asian American woman. “I thought, ‘Stay with what you know. Write an American girl.’ She’s a product of the West Valley more than anything else.” If there was a risk that an Asian technical genius might be seen as playing toward stereotype, Jones thought he could overcome it by writing a vibrant, varied character. “She’s not just a tech whiz. She’s also goofy and flighty and arrogant.”
New plays often get batted around the country for years of readings, workshops, rewrites and mullings-over by different theaters before, if luck kicks in, the script gets done by a major regional company. All it took for “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” was a $50 staging at Yale’s drama school. David Chambers, who teaches directing there, was an advisor for the in-house workshop and immediately pitched the play to South Coast Repertory, where he has directed almost annually since 1988.
Chambers, who is staging the premiere, and South Coast’s literary manager, Jennifer Kiger, say they were drawn by the youthful verve of Jones’ language and characters, and the way his play brings to life a plugged-in, high-tech world. “You believe it’s a 22-year-old woman talking to you, and that’s not easy to capture,” Kiger says. She thinks that, despite the techie milieu, the flying robot and the fact that much of the dialogue is in the form of e-mails and instant messages being read out loud, “it’s a play with a heart. In the end you feel for this girl, you believe all of it, and you want her to be OK.”
“The play,” Jones says, “has just been ridiculously fortunate.”
Meanwhile, he is busy with another grad school assignment, a Roller Derby saga called “The Jammer” that he plans to rework this summer into a musical. Besides producing “Jenny Chow,” South Coast commissioned Jones to write another play -- which he says concerns a classical maestro who refuses to conduct anything but Mahler, and who is obsessed with finding the reincarnations of his dead parents.
If “Jenny Chow” becomes a sensation, spiritualists and dramatists may start testing the air at a certain address on College Street in New Haven. According to local lore, Thornton Wilder wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Skin of Our Teeth” in the Anchor, the bar that sends cooking smells and loud rock ‘n’ roll into Jones’ apartment while he’s trying to write on a laptop missing its semicolon key. (Actually, Tappan Wilder, the playwright’s nephew and literary executor, says it’s fairly certain that his uncle, who loved to hoist an after-dinner highball at the Anchor, wrote the play elsewhere. But he’s sure that Wilder would have adjourned to the Anchor after the play’s 1942 premiere at the Shubert Theatre across the street.)
Jones isn’t superstitious about staying plugged into this literary feng shui. He misses L.A. and plans to beat it back here as soon as he finishes grad school next spring.
“I’m a Californian. I don’t think I’m spiritually happier anywhere else. That’s what’s kismet-y about South Coast doing this play.”
‘The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow’
Where: South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m.
Ends: May 18
Contact: (714) 708-5555