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The phrase “I’m afraid I don’t have that information” is uttered more than once in Jordan Harrison’s new play, Marjorie Prime, and it somehow feels both chilling and poignant. It’s said first by Walter (Noah Bean), a handsome, well-composed young man who isn’t a man at all. He’s a “Prime,” a sort of artificial-intelligence avatar attending to Marjorie (Lois Smith), an 85-year-old woman whose body and mind are starting to fade. He’s in the form of her late husband when he was just 30 years old.
The provocative premise of this drama set in the not-so-distant future is that Primes can take the place of lost loved ones to ease the emotional pain of their survivors. But, of course, their effectiveness is reliant on the information fed to them, which thanks to our propensity for historical revisionism, is sometimes altered to suit our needs.
Among the events of Marjorie’s past was the death of her son Damian, something that her daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery), feels no need to remind her about. Tess’ husband, Jon (Stephen Root), feels differently, arguing that to whitewash the past is to forget it.
“How much does she have to forget before she’s not your mom anymore?” he asks.
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Aging, the loss of identity and the thin line between reality and fantasy are but a few of the themes of this thoughtful, poetic work by Orange Is the New Black staff writer Harrison, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In the course of the play’s 80-minute running time, the characters undergo further losses that reveal the limits of even the most sophisticated futuristic technology.
As memorably played by Smith — a veteran character actress whose career dates so far back that she appeared with James Dean in East of Eden — Marjorie is an indelible character, alternately feisty (“Something is a little off with the nose,” she tells Walter Prime) and despairing.
“I don’t have to get better. Just keep me from getting worse,” she pleads.
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First seen last fall at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in a different production with some of the same cast, Marjorie Prime is sometimes frustratingly slow and schematic; it’s the sort of play that is probably more satisfying to ponder over afterward than to watch. But it resonates with deep feeling, philosophical intelligence and empathy not only for its human characters, but also for its artificial ones.
Staged in measured, understated fashion by Anne Kauffman, the piece is wonderfully acted by the ensemble: Bean somehow manages to seem both utterly natural and slightly off-kilter as the Walter Prime who’s eager to be helpful; Emery conveys the daughter’s conflicted feelings for her mother with fierce emotional honesty; and Root is touching as the husband caught in the middle.
But it’s Smith — who repeats her role in the upcoming film version, directed by Michael Almereyda and also starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Tim Robbins — who gives the play its soul. No avatar there.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Noah Bean, Lisa Emery, Stephen Root, Lois Smith
Director: Anne Kauffman
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Set designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Sound designer: Daniel Kluger
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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