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Marjorie Prime

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Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., New York, NY 10036 40.758691 -73.993384
nr. Ninth Ave.  See Map | Subway Directions Hopstop Popup
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Price

Starting at $75

Tickets

Reservations

Advance Tickets Recommended

Director

Anne Kauffman

Cast

Noah Bean, Lisa Emery, Stephen Root, Lois Smith

Nearby Subway Stops

A, C, E at 42nd St.-Port Authority Bus Terminal

Official Website

Schedule
Thru 1/24 Tue-Wed, 7pm; Thu-Sat, 8pm; Sat-Sun, 2:30pm; Sun, 7:30pm

Profile

There’s something slightly off about Walter, one of four (or is it six?) characters in Marjorie Prime, the startling and profound new drama by Jordan Harrison now at Playwrights Horizons. Walter’s recall is prodigious and he’s unflaggingly kind, but his social rhythm is a bit geeky. When he hears something new, he says, “I’ll remember that fact.” When he can’t answer a question, he says, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information” as if he were a tech-support agent trying to help you with your phone bill. Marjorie, his wife, doesn’t mind. At 85, with her own memory mostly shot, she is grateful to have Walter’s to remind her of the old days: how they met and married, had children, survived tragedy. But that’s odd, too, because Walter appears to be a glossy young man of 30. (He’s played, with perfectly calibrated artificiality, by the glossy young Noah Bean.) Also, Walter died a few years back.

Walter is a “prime”: a holographic companion customized by a company called Senior Serenity to offer Marjorie comfort and encouragement. “A few zillion pixels” make him appear to be the youthful Walter that Marjorie most wants to see; presumably Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, and son-in-law, Jon, have provided the necessary photographs to feed the illusion. They have also provided the necessary biographical and psychological data, which through the self-improving algorithms of artificial intelligence, and instantaneous access to the world’s knowledge base in the ether, have by the time of the play’s action brought Walter Prime so close to Walter that Marjorie often forgets he’s a simulacrum. So do we, except that in some ways he’s better than a real spouse: When not in use, he sits pleasantly on a sofa, smiling and ready and silent.

The year is 2062 — not so far in the future as it may seem. (Toddlers today will just be pushing 50 then, and Harrison himself, like Marjorie, will be 85.) Likewise, the prime technology isn’t a far leap from the chatbots and virtual-reality holography already in use. The play subtly yet assiduously closes any expected emotional gap as well: Daughters still struggle with their mothers; mothers still flirt with doctors; everyone still grieves as the losses pile up. (The primes are not just for the elderly but for anyone craving the companionship of a departed loved one.) It is a wholly recognizable world — a “prime” of ours, if you will; even though the sterile environment in which Marjorie lives is wired to play Vivaldi at the mere mention of his name, Vivaldi is still being played. (And Jif peanut butter is still being preferred to the natural kind.) The point is that this is not science fiction: “Science fiction is here,” says Tess, who has trouble warming to Walter Prime as a pseudo-father. “Every day is science fiction.”

It’s true that Marjorie Prime is fundamentally a realistic work, and a brilliant one at that. But it shares with that genre the problem of surprise: There’s not much more I can tell you about the plot without spoiling part of the experience. (The final scene is a killer.) A crucial difference, though, is that the play’s twists are not the arbitrary chain-yanks of most sci-fi drama; they (and the way you absorb them) are integral to the questions Harrison is raising. What’s more, these are human, not technological, questions: Where do others live within us? Why (and what) do we mourn when they die? Is there such a thing as a soul, distinguishable from the facts and habits of replicable behavior?

If you have ever pawed through the detritus of a loved one’s life — the letters, the email accounts, the junk drawers — you will know just how powerful, how painful, these questions can be. That in this production they are rendered natural as well, despite the amusing technological frame through which Harrison explores them, is the result of the superior ensemble acting of the cast, under Anne Kauffman’s beautifully balanced direction. (At 80 minutes, the play does not seem even a minute too short — or too long.) As Marjorie, Lois Smith, herself 85, performs the amazing trick of capturing all the traits the character is described as having, but in semi-decrepitude, like a scenic ruin; her vanity, her precision, her goodness, and the limitations of that goodness are all devastatingly rendered in swiftly passing flashes. Lisa Emery makes of Tess an instantly recognizable figure: the beleaguered daughter promoted to caretaker, trying to untangle a complicated relationship when there is almost no time left to do so. (She also bears the brunt of the most wrenching changes as the plot moves forward.) And Stephen Root, as her good-guy husband, steadily banks his emotional fires for the moment when they must flame up in grief. It’s to Kauffman’s credit that these three, along with Bean as Walter, manage somehow to seem like a real family, despite being deployed in several noncontemporaneous time schemes; is this another kind of artificial intelligence?

No, it’s real, but no less rare for that. And though you will soon enough be able to see Marjorie Prime as a film (starring Smith along with Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, and Jon Hamm) I can’t help feeling, as Tess does, that the better experience is live. At any rate, it is the more precious experience. Humans may still have Jif in 47 years but it’s unclear whether they will still have theater. In case they don’t, see Marjorie Prime now, because it will be, even then, a play worth remembering.

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