January 6, 2016

The Virtual Realities of "Marjorie Prime"

Marjorie Prime, the Pulitzer Prize finalist running at Playwrights Horizons through Jan. 24, is intentionally unsettling. Playwright Jordan Harrison has set it in the near future when today's twentysomethings will be entering their dotage and science has devised a remedy for the losses that have always plagued the old.

Its titular Marjorie is an octogenarian widow who is losing her memory. So her daughter and son-in-law have gotten her a "prime," an android that looks and acts like her late husband Walter. 

Primes are designed to resemble the departed one at a particular time in his or her life and the faux Walter looks about 30, decades younger than the actual Walter was when he died. 

The prime's job is to keep Marjorie company by recounting favorite anecdotes from her past. But the only recollections primes can share are the ones they're given, whether those memories really happened or not.

Thus, the play probes the question of what we most cherish about our loved ones (at which age would you like to see a deceased parent or spouse return—in the bloom of their youth or as they were in the final days you shared with them?) And it also asks what role the stories we tell about them and ourselves play in making us who we are.

Harrison, who is only 37, doesn't have definitive answers to those questions (click here to listen to some of his thoughts) and that leaves his 80-minute meditation on them somewhat up in the air, which clearly seemed to annoy some members of the audience at the performance my theatergoing buddy Bill and I attended.

Luckily, Anne Kauffman's expertly calibrated direction grounds Harrison's sci-fi scenario in a world that is solid and familiar, albeit still slightly creepy. 

Kauffman has instructed set designer Laura Jellinek to give Marjorie's home the bland sterility of an upscale nursing home, where the expectation is that the residents won't be staying long. Meanwhile, she's had Ben Stanton set the lighting just a degree too bright, a tacit reminder of all the artificiality that surrounds Marjorie.

And her casting is superb. Lisa Emery makes the daughter's mixture of resentment, fear and regret instantly recognizable to anyone who has had to care for an aging parent. Stephen Root is excellent in the deceptively simple role of the affable son-in-law. And Noah Bean aces the equally difficult job of portraying the android Walter as simultaneously affectless and appealing.

But it is Lois Smith, herself 85, who anchors the play with a performance that allows glimpses of the woman Marjorie once was to show through, making it all the more poignant as her warmth and funniness recede.

Smith, who is performing her second major stage role in less than a year (she was the blind seer Genevieve in Annie Baker's John) and also recently completed a film version of Marjorie Prime with Jon Hamm as Walter, and Geena Davis and Tim Robbins as the daughter and son-in-law, is clearly in far better shape than Marjorie (click here to read an interview with her).

But as Bill and I walked to a nearby restaurant for a post-show dinner, I wondered what effect playing a woman so close to the end of everything might be having on Smith. Because the more I thought about it, the more unsettled it made me.

No comments: