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Marjorie Prime

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Lois Smith
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Lois Smith as the face of fear? How could this genial actress, best known in recent years for a progression of smart grandmother roles (most notably in The Trip to Bountiful), terrify anyone? It's an excellent question, and one I won't tarnish with undue details, except to say that it happens—big time—in Anne Kauffman's riveting production of Jordan Harrison's play Marjorie Prime, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons.

What makes Smith such a chilling messenger in this case is that the fear is entirely implied, as both experienced and meted out. For the first half of the play, we see where it comes from in its natural state: Marjorie, an 85-year-old woman who's living with her daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery), and Tess's husband, Jon (Stephen Root), is using a new technological tool called a "prime" to cope with the loss of her faculties, the clouding of her memory, and her own encroaching mortality. But primes are no standard computer programs, at least not the way we think of them today (the earliest scenes are set in 2062, which is far off, but not unimaginably so). These are smart, adaptable artificial intelligence constructs that humans teach and then draw comfort from when and how they need it most—except, oh yes, they happen to look like people from your past.

Marjorie's prime is in the form of her husband, Walter. He's been dead for a while now, but the two had a long-enduring marriage—so why does Walter Prime, as he's called, look like he's, maybe, 34 tops? (Noah Bean plays him.) Why indeed. And why is there any debate among the members of the family over what he should know and what he shouldn't? If the task of the primes is, as it seems to be, to guide us through our traumatic experiences, aren't they best off having the most information possible about the people they're serving? Or is the process of feeding them that data itself doing more harm than good? What value, if any, is there in loading an AI with memories only so it can spout them back at you when it determines you need them most?

Lois Smith joined by Stephen Root and Lisa Emery
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Poor Marjorie is caught amid all this uncertainty, which only amplifies her latent insecurities and terrors: She's already having trouble distinguishing the present from the past and reality from fantasy, and now it must be made even harder—in the guise of helping her? Marjorie puts up the expected front, falling in line with the delusion. But behind Smith's eyes you can see the truth about this woman and the danger she's facing, and how what she knows is different than what she may be willing to admit. She's at war with herself, with her family (dealing with Marjorie is not easy on Tess, not least because Mom has a more natural connection to Jon), and with a world that won't let her be what she is and what she needs to do. Smith plays all of this quietly, delicately, and without a hint of affectation, letting us see in all its heartbreaking glory how what scares Marjorie most may also be what sets her—and her family, and all of us—free.

Then... things change. To discuss precisely how would be to spoil a gorgeous, non-twisty twist that Harrison expertly employs to propel the characters and the play's meaning into the stratosphere. But it's at this point that Smith must do a complete about-face, and no longer represent the victim of unfathomable fear, but instead reflect its worst qualities outward. And she's at least as good at this new permutation, adopting a personality that sends seismic ripples through Jon and Tess's life that they're not prepared to guard against. We must then see how they react to what their love for Marjorie has wrought, in both the short and long terms, and witness, first-hand, the emotional devastation that results. And, believe it or not, there's yet one more layer that reconfigures all our perceptions again, and inspires us to ask ourselves—in a third (fourth? fifth?) way—whether any of this is worth it.

Infinitely complex, intellectually provocative, and flagrantly moral, Marjorie Prime is a masterpiece of dramatic construction and execution when it remains centered. And Kauffman's production could hardly be better: crisp, futuristic, and yet resolutely now, a cry from the future to the present in our own language. (The sparkling post-chic living room set is by Laura Jellinek, and it's been thrillingly lighted by Ben Stanton, who pulls off a marvelous coup in the play's final moments; the costumes, muddying the gap between now and then, are by Jessica Pabst, and the fine sound is by Daniel Kluger.) And the other actors are as superb as Smith, with Emery unlocking both the most maddening and sympathetic qualities of Tess to arresting affect, Root adopting a sophisticated coolness that crumbles when pressed too firmly, and Bean putting a cleverly personal spin on someone who isn't really a person at all.

Despite the cast's and Kauffman's best efforts, however, parts of the play, particularly in the first half, tend to drag. Too often, the lengthy exchanges about exactly where the family has come from and where it's going feel obligatory and pat rather than robust, vibrant chapters in some eternal, and eternally up-for-grabs, story. Harrison recovers well before he reaches his finale, one of the most haunting and shattering scenes seen in New York this year, but the writing, for all its effectiveness, can't quite maintain the necessary velocity from start to finish.

Even so, Marjorie Prime is an absolute winner, like all the best plays because of what it says about us and not the technology that's becoming an integral (too-integral?) part of our lives. That can only affect the surface; it's our interactions with others, and the lenses through which we view them and their contributions to our lives, that matter most, and Harrison has captured that in all its jumbled, passionate intricacy.

"This isn't important," one character says to another, erasing two previous sentences (about, of all things, fabric softener) in trying to establish a baseline from which they may, at last, be able to communicate. "It's all important," comes the reply. Yes, it is. Like so much else here, that may be a lesson you'll fear. But after seeing Marjorie Prime, it's one you will never, ever forget.

Marjorie Prime
Through January 3
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets and current performance schedule: TicketCentral

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