Review: Lois Smith gives depth to clever 'Marjorie Prime'

AP News
Posted: Dec 14, 2015 8:00 PM
Review: Lois Smith gives depth to clever 'Marjorie Prime'

NEW YORK (AP) — If we could leave our memories behind after death, would that make us immortal?

Jordan Harrison's new play "Marjorie Prime" is a quietly creepy, enigmatic sci-fi drama about futuristic beings that people use to create companion versions of their deceased loved ones.

Humans selectively download their memories into artificial intelligence machines called "Primes" in order to converse and reminisce about happy times from the past.

The eerie new play by Harrison ("Maple and Vine" and a writer on "Orange Is the New Black") is a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist. A perceptive, effective New York premiere opened Monday night off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Obie Award winner Anne Kauffman ("Detroit," ''Belleville").

The magnificent Lois Smith portrays elderly Marjorie, whose mind wanders, although she's still got playful and witty moments. Smith easily navigates the nuances of dignity, sassiness and confusion, as Marjorie enjoys lively conversations with a Prime who's a much younger version of her late husband Walter. Noah Bean is just slightly robotic as Walter Prime, managing to seem artificial yet with a human eagerness to please.

Marjorie is cared for by her daughter Tess and son-in-law Jon, ably portrayed by Lisa Emery and Stephen Root. Emery is tightly wound and radiating stress, as Tess is unhappy, resentful and easily combative. Root is nicely contrasting, providing a soothing, sensitive, down-to-earth presence as Jon.

Kauffman has economically and coolly staged the play. While humans have often fraught interactions, Primes hover discreetly nearby, possibly waiting in another dimension. Jon and Tess argue about the wisdom and safety of using the Primes, and even what to tell them.

Tess says angrily, "We tell them our deepest secrets, even though we have no earthly idea how they work. We treat them like our loved ones." Jon thinks a human element exists inside the Primes, while Tess insists it's just a "backboard," only programmed to seem interested in the humans talking with it.

In the end, a group of Primes sit eerily "reminiscing," learning more about their human counterparts from one another's downloaded memories.

On one level, "Marjorie Prime" is a wry examination of how technology is replacing some human interaction, but it's also a tender, layered look at the caprices of memory and the devastating impact of loss.