While watching “Marjorie Prime” I couldn’t help thinking of the “Twilight Zone.” Currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum, this world premiere play is an intellectual look at loneliness, death and high technology. If one of your loved ones dies, would you want to replace him/her with an android you could program with memories?
At first, the android is a youngish version of Marjorie’s deceased husband, Walter (Jeff Ward). To avoid confusion, he’s Walter Prime. He’s programmed to repeat things, memories and that makes Marjorie (two-time Tony Award nominee Lois Smith) happy because Marjorie is entering senility and repetition helps. Marjorie’s daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery) thinks it’s a bit creepy that her senior citizen mother wanted a much younger version of her hubbie, telling her husband Jon (Tony Award winner Frank Wood), “Talking to a computer or a computer who pretends to be your dad every day is science fiction,” but Jon is a mediator at heart. He doesn’t argue, but as Marjorie deteriorates Jon wonders, “How much does she have to forget before she’s not your mom any more?”
When Marjorie dies, her daughter replaces her with an alert version of her mother, Marjorie Prime, and keeps the android programmed to be her father. Now we have a slight dysfunction in the family–father and mother are at different ages in their physical appearance, but not necessarily in their memories. Marjorie Prime listens to her daughter. She’s not critical. She calmly considers each verbal exchange. Marjorie Prime lacks Marjorie’s zest that was eventually crushed by dementia. The android can’t revive that aspect of the human version. Then we wonder: What was Walter really like?
When one more person dies, we have a family of four–three androids and one human. Imagine a room full of quiet, calm people who politely listen to your every word and gauge your every action to determine their best reaction–all focused on comforting you, the human. That could be creepy but things could get creepier.
All the action occurs in living rooms–first Marjorie’s and then Tess’s. The playwright keeps the foursome from veering into sex doll Stepford wives territory. Before the Stepford wives became a movie, “The Twilight Zone” explored android companionship in the 1959 episode about a sexy android keeping an inmate named Corry company in his solitary confinement on some small asteroid in the year 2046 (“The Lonely” with Jack Warden as James A. Corry and Jean Marsh as the android who becomes his beloved). “The Twilight Zone” had to keep it clean for the TV censors and the superficial morality of the times, but this is a play in 2014–a post-Hair world. Playwright Jordan Harrison, takes several steps to keep the focus on intellectual ideas and sidestep carnal questions.
Harrison plays with our cultural prejudices to prevent us from thinking about the physical, emotional and even carnal aspects of family and love. The mismatch between Marjorie and her husband is similar to “The Twilight Zone” episode “The Trade-Ins” in which an elderly couple can only afford to buy one of them a young body. The husband becomes young, but our reaction is: There cannot be love or lust between these two. For the sake of happiness, the man returns to his old self. Growing old together is preferable than an older woman having a much younger man. That worked in a pre-Cougar Town era. We could imagine an older man being happy with a much younger version of his wife. We can’t imagine the increasingly senile Margorie having physical affection with the much younger Walter Prime. Sexy seniors do exist, but that’s not the important question here.
Under the direction of Obie Award-winner Les Waters, Smith is the most interesting character. Her Marjorie was a lustful woman who broke the rules. Smith’s Marjorie then slips into senility, becoming as pale and blank–as common and pleasantly predictable as the vanilla tones of the off-white set design of Mimi Lien. Nothing clashes with off-white.
Ward’s Walter Prime is a cautious man, polite and solicitous. Was he really like that? It’s hard to say. Smith’s Marjorie Prime is alert and nice but lacks the bit of crazy that created tension between her and Tess. Waters doesn’t dull the abrasiveness of Emery’s Tess. She is a daughter who probably never got along with her mother. If she was her father’s daughter, then we have to consider why she isn’t pleased with the Walter Prime programmed for her mother. Sometimes people show different sides of themselves to different people.
Wood’s Jon is a man so busy making peace that he’s lost when he no longer has to fulfill that function. But the primes are basically memory sponges meant to do even less than mediate. They are supposed to medicate people in grief by simply being there, being present where there is someone absent.
In “The Twilight Zone” episode, “The Lateness of the Hour,” the daughter of an inventor wants him to get rid of all his robots, but she soon realizes that she can never leave the house, marry or have children because she, too, is a robot. Traumatized because of her sensitive nature, she becomes so emotionally distraught that her “father” reprograms her. Do emotions make us human? What if robots could feel? This territory has been covered in movies as well such as “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” and with the character of Data in Star Trek. Emotion and the ability to connect is something that robots do not have and then what meaning do their memories have?
Harrison’s play keeps the emotional content on a low boil. This is more about memories, how different people remember different things, how by different people feeding the primes their version of events we see a disconnect. But that disconnect is part of being human. Imagine conversations where everyone wants to please each other, where the goal is shared memories that are the same–not colored by age, not colored by prejudice and not colored by emotions.
“Marjorie Prime” is about every day life with a science fiction tweak, one that asks us to consider the more common place uses for android or robots, one that doesn’t leap to the futuristic Star Trek and instead brings us to question a reality that is coming upon us.
Before we consider the ethics and moral considerations of an android like Data in the distant future peopled with extraterrestrials, we need to look to the near future. There are already robots being developed for helping seniors. Some of them are cute as portrayed in “Robot & Frank.” Others are more humanoid.
Perhaps some audience members may be unaware how close we are to a future with robot companions. Maybe not them, but their children will depend upon robots for companionship. “Marjorie Prime” takes away the action of blockbuster movies and wants us to consider the basic entry of robots into our every day world.
“Majorie Prime” continues until Oct. 19 at the Mark Taper Forum, Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Tickets range from $25 – $70 (ticket prices are subject to change). To order tickets call (213) 628-2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.