By Stanford Friedman
When writers write about memory, they do so in the context of loss. From The Glass Menagerie to Fun Home, incidents of lost youth, lost innocence and lost loved ones are the memories from which important theater is made. But in Marjorie Prime, playwright Jordan Harrison explores the haunting question of what might happen if memory persists with loss removed from the equation. It’s a futuristic trip to a Twilight Zone where no home is complete without lifetime companions who keep the old days alive and compensate for the bothersome realities of death.
When we first meet the elderly Marjorie (Lois Smith), she is conversing with an odd, younger man named Walter (Noah Bean). As the scene progresses, we infer that Walter was Marjorie’s late husband and that this gent is actually a “Prime,” a computerized replica of Walter in his early thirties, back when life was sweeter. It’s a clever little duet that is one part reminiscence, and one part training manual. They relive and reinvent their courtship even as Marjorie takes in the limits of Walter’s programming. “I sound like whoever I talk to,” he informs her, foreshadowing the sad truth at the play’s heart: being reminded of the past is not the same thing as sharing it.
Marjorie lives with her tense, middle-aged daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery), and Tess’ husband Jon (Stephen Root). The couple have troubles of their own, but things get easier when, one day, Marjorie turns up in a nice sweater and is noticeably perkier. Given the play’s title, it is not a spoiler to reveal that, as Marjorie Prime, she now exists more to comfort Tess than to be comforted by her. Harrison’s script is enjoyable at moments like this, when the audience gets to piece together what’s happening. But, too often, he feels compelled to explain what we’ve already come to realize, dragging down the proceedings.
This is a play of ideas and, as such, there is more discourse than there is dramatic action, and characterizations do not run especially deep. One should never pass up the chance to see the wonderful Lois Smith, and she is fine in this production, if not transcendent. Her transition from sickly human to happy hologram is appropriately subtle, but we are never provided a depths-of-despair moment that would have made her a more sympathetic figure. As an unlikely result, the play turns out to belong to Jon. It is he who truly learns the benefits and drawbacks of the Primes, and the play’s one pure moment of epiphany belongs to him. Stephen Root is one of those character actors whose name is unfamiliar but whose voice and appearance are instantly identifiable. This added bit of familiarity provides some bonus warmth to push back against the cold, cruel world framed within designer Laura Jellinek’s icy and angular smart home.
Time is intentionally fluid in this work but, under Anne Kauffman’s otherwise thoughtful direction, leaps of many years feel more disjointed than they should be. We fast forward to Tess’ fate much too quickly, while a wonderfully chilling final scene, with the Primes doing only what they know to do, feels like it takes place maybe a week after the preceding scene, when, shockingly, the script instructs that it actually takes place many centuries later.
Marjorie Prime – By Jordan Harrison; Directed by Anne Kauffman.
WITH: Noah Bean (Walter), Lisa Emery (Tess), Stephen Root (Jon), Lois Smith (Marjorie)
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek; Lights by Ben Stanton; Costumes by Jessica Pabst; Sound by Daniel Kluger; Vanessa Coakley, production stage manager; Produced by Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, (212) 279–4200, http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/marjorie-prime/. Through January 3, 2016. Running time: 80 minutes.