by Samuel L. Leiter
Here’s one of many questions raised by Marjorie Prime—Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer finalist play—about artificial intelligence. Assume it’s the year 2062, and technology has advanced so far that exact physical replicas of beloved dead folks can be created, allowing them to sooth the grieving hearts of those left behind. Moreover, while they can be brought back at any age one chooses, those who’ve obtained them need to provide all the memories required in order to maintain purposeful communication. Do you think you could tell such a creature everything it would need to know in order to convincingly replicate the person it represents? And could that being ever reciprocate with real feelings? But that’s one of many other questions.
In Marjorie Prime, Harrison confronts the emotional and psychological ramifications of what such intimate relationships between flesh and blood humans and technological humans might entail. The play introduces us to octogenarian Marjorie (played by octogenarian Lois Smith), born in 1977, a role she created for the play’s 2014 premiere at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Marjorie, suffering from dementia but more or less still in command of her faculties, engages in pleasantries with a handsome, polite, but ever-so-slightly odd, 30-year-old man who, we discover, is the “prime” (a clone-like robot) of her late husband, Walter (Noah Bean). He’s been provided for her comfort by her tense, middle-aged daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and Tess’s more grounded husband Jon (Stephen Root).
Walter shares memories, some of them uncertain, designed to comfort Marjorie in her declining years and keep her brain exercised; he also absorbs the memories that Marjorie feeds him so he can become ever more companionable. Tess has doubts about his usefulness; Jon believes his presence has great value, at least at first. Eventually, a prime of Marjorie herself, as she was before she died, but without her ailments, will serve Tess’s needs, and, when Tess is gone, Jon will have a prime of her. What happens to the primes themselves forms the most interesting scene in the play.
Futurism is barely noticeable in the show’s subtle look. The 80-minute production unfolds in a mint green and white, sparsely decorated, antiseptic open plan apartment (facility?), designed by Laura Jellinek. A large kitchen is upstage, a lone Lazy-Boy recliner (later replaced by a more stylish chair) is downstage, and there’s a sitting area. Jessica Pabst’s costumes look like what people wear today. Daniel Kluger’s chilly sound design and Ben Stanton’s evocative lighting create a sinister mood, especially during transitions, when furnishings are shifted almost invisibly. (For some reason, though, headphone-wearing stagehands do the job toward the end, damaging the illusion.)
Since there’s a general coolness to director Anne Kaufmann’s production, and the backstories of the characters aren’t particularly engrossing, the difference between the humans and the primes might have worked better if the characters were more down-to-earth or unusual than the superficial ones in the play. The musically voiced Smith offers in Marjorie a precise picture of an intelligent woman watching herself descend into physical and mental frailty. When she reappears as a prime, her appearance is better and spirit livelier, but there’s the same subtle artificiality about her as we saw in Walter as she seeks the knowledge required to fulfill her mission. Bean, who resembles a young David Bowie, makes a perfect human simulacrum, and Root and Emery do what they can with characters who seem more like attitudes than people.
Harrison wisely remains opaque about the androids’ technical details, forcing you to fill in the dots. His premise is wide open for speculation and debate; if you go with someone you’ll surely be talking about it afterward, regardless of how much the play itself did or didn’t dramatically satisfy you.
416 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through January 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).