A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
As Harrison has already demonstrated in his previous work, he's an imaginative, thoughtful writer. The questions he tackles in Marjorie Prime cover a lot of ground. The topic-in-chief is how artificial intelligence can offset the loss of identity as a result of fading memories and, if in doing so, it can rewrite or update that deleted memory archive. Since memory loss is a prelude to life's end, Harrison also ponders whether A.I. can ease the passage for the dying as well as the grief of those left behind.
Drones have already proven themselves as effective substitute deliverers of everything from Amazon merchandise to bombs, and automatically driven cars making successful test runs. So. . . can the idea of a hologram in the form of a real person programmed to feed lost memories back to someone struggling with dementia be far behind?
Though Marjorie Prime fits the science fiction genre, Mr. Harrison bypasses the usual dystopian drama's imagery. He's structured his play to combine his contemplation of a world increasingly reliant on technology with a more familiar every day reality.
The play's "prime" or android characters don't sport any of the sci-fi paraphernalia of those in book, movie or stage sagas. Instead they are replicas of the flesh and blood characters whose life experiences they've been programmed to retain. Thus we don't immediately pick up on what's really going on between the attractive young man named Walter (Noah Bean) visiting the frail, 86-year-old Marjorie (Lois Smith) in the play's opening scene.
We're also left to figure out where and when all this is taking place. The program makes no mention of time or location. Neither is there anything especially futuristic about Laura Jellinek's sprawling kitchen-living room set, except that there's something cold and unreal about the matching pale green look of walls and furniture. Not a picture or other memorabilia in sight. If there was a book shelf one wouldn't be surprised to see all the colorful book jackets covered with paper to match the wallpaper.
What is very much present in this strangely barren home is a sense of disquiet hanging over this family. Walter Prime is a comforting presence to the once beautiful and accomplished woman now unable to care for herself. But to her fearful question about the next phase of her diminished existence all he can say is "I don't have that information."
Walter can also do just so much to "prime" the tense daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her persistently upbeat husband Jon (Stephen Root) to help Marjorie maintain her identity and not have the succumb to despair at their own losses.
To detour for a note on the play's origin: Unlike Tess and Jon, Harrison's parents used old-fashioned journal keeping to shepherd his grandmother through her befuddled final years. Harrison tried to incorporate the experience of his own family into a play tackling the losses of aging, death, and humanity through the lens of ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence. (You may want to check out a brief video in which the playwright talks about all this on Youtube).
Though running just 80 minutes, Marjorie Prime is an ambitious and provocative rumination on the crossroads to which all our journeys through life lead. The every day aspects of the play cover much that's predictable such as past romances, and the loss of a beloved dog or child — hardly as exciting as more typical futuristic dramas. The familial plot elements may in fact slow down some audience members' comprehension of the sci-fi angle.
Fortunately, under the direction of Anne Kauffman the in and out movement between ordinary and extraordinary is accomplished with subtle fluidity. Best of all, the cast is more than up to tapping into the nuances of the characters.
The extraordinarily wonderful Lois Smith captures both Marjorie's remaining vibrancy and crustiness and her painful physical and mental fragility. Noah Been is perfectly cast as the handsome young Walter (a figure in her dream, ghost or programmed replica of her husband at age 30?).
Lisa Emery and Stephen Root are on the mark as the tightly wrapped daughter and supportive husband and son-in-law struggling with both the realistic problems of being caretakers to an aging parent and the new-new process of what additional biographical information to feed into a hologram. The final scenes when Tess and Jon's care taking morphs into their facing their own futures are especially touching.
While Marjorie Prime has some humorous moments, it's hardly a comedy or light entertainment. But while Marjorie's plight is sad, there's nothing sad about a play that has the 85-year-old Lois Smith proving that true talent doesn't need a hologram to survive well into one's so-called declining years.
If you're one of our out-of-town readers unable to catch Lois Smith's superb Marjorie, not to worry. It's being made into a film in which she will reprise her role, with Jon Hamm to play Walter Prime, and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as her daughter and son-in-law.
Links to other Jordan Harrison plays we've reviewed (the first two also at Playwrights Horizon: Maple and Vine also directed by Anne Kauffman
Doris to Darlene a Cautionary Valentine Amazons and their men Futura, a previous venture into a futurist world.