Near the beginning of “Marjorie Prime,” Jordan Harrison’s insightful and only slightly science fiction play, Walter is reminding his wife about the poodle they had –“Not the fussy kind that look like hedges. No, this was a poodle for fetching sticks.” He ends his reminiscence: “And then, like everything else, she died.”
“Do you want me to keep going?” Walter asks after a pause.
“There’s more?” replies a surprised Marjorie “After ‘she died.’?”
Indeed there is. Walter himself is dead. Marjorie is talking to a sophisticated holographic projection (actually the actor Noah Bean) of her dead husband when he was in the prime of his life. This robotic product, manufactured by a company ominously entitled Senior Serenity, is called a Prime, and it exists as something more than a companion: Its purpose is to collect stories and recite them back to Marjorie, who is 85 and of fading health and memory. But, for all its advanced technology, Walter Prime is of course, only as good as Marjorie’s memory on her best days, and that of her daughter Tess and her husband Jon.
“Marjorie Prime” takes place some 50 years in the future – which we eventually figure out through the playwright’s mischievous clues, such as Marjorie singing the 2008 Beyonce song “Single Ladies” as if a melody from her youth.
The main strength of “Marjorie Prime” is not in its imagining of future robots, but in its precise perceptions of present-day (and perhaps eternal) family dynamics. Tess and Jon are at the age in which they struggle to figure out how to care for those who once cared for them, while also navigating the distancing behavior of their own now-adult children.
They are middle-aged, perhaps halfway through their lives. “There’s the half where you live,” Tess observes, “and the half where you live through other people. And your memory of when you were young.”
This is a play about memory, and the way memory intersects with identity, implicitly positing some profound questions. How accurate are — and should be — our memories of a lost loved one? Is identity only how we see ourselves and how others see us? How much should we live in the past?
“Marjorie Prime” moves forward through a series of revelations, which deepen our understanding of the characters, and which I won’t reveal here, except to say that there is much humor in the telling and retelling of the family stories, and much precision in the performances of the four actors, under the expert direction of Anne Kauffman: Lisa Emery is a too-serious and despairing Tess, Stephen Root the laid-back, reassuring Jon who starts to doubt his approach to life, Noah Bean the suitably eerie but never creepy Walter Prime, and Lois Smith as Marjorie. Smith, who is herself 85 and has been acting in New York City since 1951, gives another one of her lustrous performances, portraying Marjorie as alternately confused, indignant, embarrassed, clever, whimsical, flirtatious, wise, steely — as a full-fledged human being, rare for a character who is elderly.
by Jordan Harrison
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Scenic design by Laura Jellinek, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Ben Stanton and sound design by Daniel Kluger. Production Stage Manager is Vanessa Coakley.
Cast: Noah Bean, Lisa Emery, Stephen Root, Lois Smith
Running time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Marjorie Prime is scheduled to run through January 3, 2016
Update: The show has been extended to January 24, 2016