'Marjorie Prime' Playwright Jordan Harrison on Memory, Mainframes and 'Orange Is the New Black'

Craig Schwartz

“We’ll find ways to hold on to our humanity in the face of our 500 iPhone emails we get in a second”

Introduced by mathematician Alan Turing in a 1950s paper, the Turing test is a simple list of questions put to both a human and a computer to determine which is which. Turing predicted a computer would fool scientists into thinking it was human by the year 2000. He was off by 14 years, as last June in London a machine posing as a 13-year-old Russian boy stumped analysts for the first time ever.

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Playwright Jordan Harrison has been preoccupied with our current transition from analog to digital in his past three plays, and his latest, Marjorie Prime, celebrating its world premiere at the Center Theatre Group through Oct. 19, is a Turing test of its own. “You have two human actors in front of you and the only way you know that one of them is a computer program is because every now and then they’ll say something like, 'I’m afraid I don’t have that information' in a way that says they don’t understand,” Harrison tells The Hollywood Reporter.

One of those actors is 85-year-old Lois Smith, whose credits like East of Eden, Five Easy Pieces and, more recently, True Blood, have made her a familiar face to both the young and old. Smith plays Prime, an elderly woman on her death bed who, when the curtain rises, is sitting with a well-groomed young man who turns out to be a digital version of her deceased husband appearing as he did in his youth, comforting her by her bedside.

“This is a very personal story in terms of this particular family,” says Smith. “We live at different levels of reality and of cognizance and that’s interchangeable within us and between us. In a way that’s what it’s about, the ways that our experience and memory affect ourselves and each other in our relationships.”

Read more 'Marjorie Prime': Theater Review

While many of the play's issues had been swirling through Harrison’s head for years, it was the death of his grandmother that served as the catalyst for Marjorie Prime. While his parents took care of her, Harrison observed as they fed her memories of ordinary things like what she orders in restaurants or the time a boxer became infatuated with her. It was this process of selecting and polishing old stories that got Harrison wondering about the fabric of memory. “They were keeping the information of who she was in her mind, which isn’t too unlike how people talk to the artificial intelligence programs in the play, making them more human by feeding them information.”

Harrison has written 12 plays, including four off-Broadway productions, and has won a Guggenheim Fellowship among other awards. He’s grateful for the limited success he’s achieved but even more so for the hunger that still drives him as a playwright who hasn’t broken through just yet, but enough to land a staff writing gig on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. While director Andrew McCarthy shoots his episode this month in New York, Harrison shuttles back and forth for the premiere of Marjorie Prime.

“I’m getting a crash course in the difference between TV and theater writing,” sighs Harrison. “For the moment I’m all right with the sort of multiple-cooks approach to TV writing. The shooting script we have is denser and smarter and funnier than the first draft I wrote alone.”

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While it has its benefits, TV writing remains secondary to playwriting as far as Harrison is concerned. Although both have their strengths, he enjoys having the authoritative voice he exercises in Marjorie Prime, which, though it offers unsettling notions about the future, is anything but a cautionary tale.

“We’ll find ways to hold on to our thoughtfulness and our humanity, the way we care for each other in the face of our 500 iPhone emails we get in a second,” Harrison says, glancing at his phone. “I just have to willfully step back from that flurry of information to remember who I am and who I care about. We all kind of try to do that.”

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