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Theatre in Review: Marjorie Prime (Playwrights Horizons)

Lois Smith, Lisa Emery, Stephen Root. Photo Jeremy Daniel

Jordan Harrison's eerie, unsettling new play presents a vision of human intimacy being reshaped by modern technology. Marjorie is a lady of 85 years, a widow, who lives alone -- with her late husband, Walter. Let me explain: In the day-after-tomorrow world of Marjorie Prime, it is possible to get a robotic version of a loved one -- in Marjorie's case, she opts for a version of Walter in his 20s, when they first met -- who is available for conversation, especially of a reminiscent nature. Walter is programmed with family stories; if Marjorie discusses an event that hasn't been uploaded into his memory, he replies, "I'm sorry. I don't have that information." As played by Noah Bean, Walter Prime, as he is known, is handsome, genial, and weird, a blandly affable presence with no wiring for emotion, inspiration, or real warmth. "I feel like I have to perform around you," Marjorie says, initially, but, really, there's no need. Walter exists for her comfort, his main task to remind her of "their" past. For example, she mentions that they once saw the film My Best Friend's Wedding. Walter recounts the plot. ("There's a woman -- Julia Roberts," he begins. "For a while, it was always Julia Roberts.") Marjorie asks, "Did I like it?" "You said you wanted a gay best friend afterward," says Walter.

As the above exchange reveals, Marjorie's memory is failing, in concert with her body. In Lois Smith's performance, Marjorie sits, in her easy chair at stage center, enduring the indignities of old age -- sometimes sassy, sometimes muddled, and sometimes deeply ashamed to admit that she has lost control of her bladder. To the last, however, she is the center of the action, a fact that doesn't entirely thrill her daughter, Tess, who loves and resents her mother in equal measure. Marjorie was a concert violinist with passionate attachments to her music and to Walter; she also had an eye for the boys, as evidenced by the ex-lover who continued to write her letters decades after they parted. Tess has none of these flirtatious, passionate qualities; indeed, she earned her mother's disapproval by marrying her college boyfriend and settling into a successful marriage of more than three decades. Then there was Damian, the son who, on the edge of adolescence, killed himself. Damian is the family's still-open wound, a catastrophe that no one has ever found the language to discuss. "I hated Damian, for changing her," Tess admits. "When he died, I didn't know how to make her love me as much as him."

Watching Marjorie, Tess, and Jon, Tess' husband, interacting with Walter Prime, one suddenly realizes that, in a sense, Marjorie Prime is about the many forms and functions of memory: For Marjorie, holding on to as many details of the past as possible is, for her, like holding on to life. Then again, memory is a kind of trap for Tess, who can't let go of the hurts and resentments of long ago. Walter, on the other hand, is a form of manufactured memory, a playback machine designed to create an artificial form of togetherness. Harrison doubles down on his theme a few scenes later, when it becomes clear that the real Marjorie has passed away and Tess is speaking to Marjorie Prime. (Smith needs only to make a tiny set of adjustments -- improving her posture, adding a smile, and adopting a blandly imperturbable manner -- to convince us utterly that she is no longer human.) Trying to get at the root of her unhappiness, Tess says, "Some people have a point where their parents stop being their parents to them; you start talking as one adult to another. I'm not sure we ever had that." "Maybe I'm the Marjorie you still have things to say to," she says. Of course, because Marjorie Prime is Tess' creation, Tess is really talking to herself. And, rather pointedly, Tess erases Damian from the discussion, pretending that she is Marjorie's only child.

Such attempts at rewriting the past do not provide much comfort, and it isn't long before another Prime, not to be identified here, joins the family. In the final scene, a trio of Primes, seated at a slowly revolving circular table engaged in a stilted conversation of the family's past. They also recreate the family's dynamic, but only faintly, in a strange echo-chamber way. The lack of unhappiness, anger, resentment, harsh wit -- indeed, any true emotion -- is striking, and more than a little disturbing. Even more so is the moment when one of them says, yet again, "I'm sorry, I don't have that information," and the conversation comes to a temporary halt.

If Harrison puts forth his premise with a kind of Rod Serling authority, it is also true that Marjorie Prime isn't especially dramatic; it works by stating and restating its initial situation, until the human characters have disappeared altogether. The humans are also underwritten, so much so that it's a lucky thing that Smith and Lisa Emery are on board as Marjorie and Tess; they do as much to suggest the long-running and highly fraught mother-daughter relationship as anything in the script.

Also, Anne Kauffman's beautifully acted production keeps raising nagging questions: Why is Marjorie's house almost entirely empty of furniture, and why is it designed with matching sofa and wallpaper? The layout of Laura Jellinek's set contains other oddities, including a kitchen vast enough to be a refectory. Later, when Marjorie Prime arrives on the scene, why is she still living alone in this enormous house? Do people of the future really rent out a house for their robots? By the finale, when there are only robots, and they're still in the damn house, Marjorie Prime is in danger of not making sense. I'm sure the explanation is that this is a stylized work, a piece of fantasy or speculative fiction, but the director and set designer haven't always laid the right groundwork for it, leaving us to be distracted by details that don't cohere.

In any case, Smith is as fine as ever as the charming, angry, bitter, witty, and frightened Marjorie, and, in contrast, is Teflon-smooth as Marjorie Prime. Emery is a master at creating women who are dogged by unresolved wounds and she deftly evokes the tangle of love and rage at Tess' core. Stephen Root is an appealing presence as Jon, Tess' loving, patient spouse who, despite Marjorie's chilly attitude, has become a devoted son-in-law; he is especially touching when recalling how a long-dreamed of vacation became the scene of a tragedy. Kauffman also stages compelling tableaux in which Walter Prime and, later, Marjorie Prime, are seated, blank-faced, either upstage or downstage right, empty of life but still strangely present. Jessica Pabst's costumes, Ben Stanton's lighting, and Daniel Kluger's sound, especially his use of Vivaldi (one of Marjorie's favorite composers), all help to establish a faintly funereal atmosphere.

Marjorie Prime is best enjoyed as a chamber piece, and on those terms it certainly has a creepily insinuating effect. Many years ago, at the dawn of the Internet, an acquaintance of mine -- a true enthusiast of all things digital -- said to me, "This will end loneliness!" As Marjorie Prime cannily suggests, the more sophisticated our technology becomes, the more we find ourselves profoundly alone. -- David Barbour

(15 December 2015)

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