Review Roundup: MARJORIE PRIME, Starring Lois Smith, Opens Off-Broadway
Playwrights Horizons presents the New York premiere of 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist MARJORIE PRIME, a new play by Jordan Harrison (Maple and Vine, Doris to Darlene at PH; Amazons and Their Men; Kid-Simple; "Orange is the New Black"). Commissioned by Playwrights Horizons and directed by Obie Award winner Anne Kauffman (Detroit, Maple and Vine, Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra at PH; Belleville; This Wide Night; The Thugs), the play opens tonight, December 14, at Playwrights Horizons' Mainstage Theater (416 West 42nd Street), and will play a limited engagement through Sunday, January 3.
The cast of MARJORIE PRIME features Noah Bean (One Arm, The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall, "12 Monkeys," "Nikita," "Damages"), two-time Obie Award winner Lisa Emery (Marvin's Room at PH, Casa Valentina, The Women, Iron, Curtains, The Unavoidable Disappearance of Tom Durnin), Stephen Root (All My Sons, Office Space, "NewsRadio," "King of the Hill," "True Blood," "24," "Boardwalk Empire") and two-time Tony Award nominee Lois Smith (After the Revolution, 100 Saints You Should Know at PH; Buried Child; The Grapes of Wrath; Annie Baker's recent John; "True Blood").
It's the age of artificial intelligence, and 86-year-old Marjorie (Ms. Smith) -- a jumble of disparate, fading memories -- has a handsome new companion (Mr. Bean) who's programmed to feed the story of her life back to her. What would we remember, and what would we forget, if given the chance? In this richly spare, wondrous new play, Jordan Harrison explores the mysteries of human identity and the limits -- if any -- of what technology can replace.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: The invaluable Lois Smith plays octogenarian Marjorie, who, at the start of the play, is taking a trip down memory lane with Walter (Noah Bean) who looks thirtysomething...Walter is, in fact, an artificial intelligence recreation of Marjorie's late husband's younger self, called a prime. The more you interact with him, the more memory he acquires and the more credible a substitute he becomes. But with Marjorie's unreliable recollections, and her desire to selectively remember or outright change facts, her new companion is actually more of an idealized version of Walter...Harrison takes the scenario exactly to where you'd expect and by the end of the play's seventy minutes we're in a world of artificial life passing on a history that never was. It's a premise with potential, but once the scenario is revealed and the morality issues debated, the drama is played out with little intrigue or surprise.
Ben Brantley, The New York Times: Try to remember. It's never as easy it sounds, recalling something -- anything -- especially as the brain ages, and the past covers more and more years. We edit, we distort, we censor; we select, we discard, we reshape, until memory becomes myth. Such notions come to mind -- and burrow in deep -- during "Marjorie Prime," Jordan Harrison's elegant, thoughtful and quietly unsettling drama...Impeccably directed by Anne Kauffman, with acting to match by a cast of four that includes the wonderful Lois Smith, this production keeps developing in your head, like a photographic negative, long after you've seen it.
Jennifer Farrar, Associated Press: 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...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...Kauffman has economically and coolly staged the play...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.
Marilyn Stasio, Variety: ...as a youthful version of her late husband, Walter-prime seems to satisfy Marjorie (Smith, as real as real can be), an 85-year-old widow who lives in the monochromatic and deadly antiseptic home of her deeply neurotic daughter, Tess (Lisa Emery, stage goddess of neurotic women), and her more amiable son-in-law, Jon (the ever-likeable Stephen Root). Marjorie is happiest (and Bean is at his wooden best) when Walter-prime is spinning feel-good stories recounted to him by one of the family...this old lady hasn't lost her sass, which keeps bubbling up in Smith's impish performance...The scribe insightfully notes that people are more honest and forthcoming with the primes than with living persons...it's also a frightening indication of techno-phobic Tess's fears that "more human" machines might, indeed, come to replicate and ultimately replace the existing human race - another topic that Harrison explores with sensitivity and intelligence.
David Cote, Time Out NY: Despite the built-in obsession with gadgets, science fiction always orbits back to a familiar subject: human psychology. All those robots, rockets and aliens are just shiny metaphors for our deeper hopes and fears. So Jordan Harrison's Marjorie Prime, set in a world where androids replace the dead, rebuilding personality by reminiscing with the living, is an intriguing scenario but mainly an elegant study of memory as both escape and prison...The structural trick of Harrison's play (not to give too much away) is the slow proliferation of Primes, which both palliates and sharpens the tragic chapters of Marjorie and Tess's past. Time will tell if A.I. ever becomes a reality, but the human parts of Harrison's smart, lovely play are built to last.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: Primes - therapeutic humanoids with artificial intelligence - feed memories to people with age- or disease-addled minds. Like 86-year-old Marjorie (a peerless Lois Smith, who seems to age backwards in the show). She relies on Walter (Noah Bean), a prime, who looks like her late husband at age 30, to fill in the gaps. The crux of the story is that primes know only what they're told. Should stories of our lives be edited so they're more sunny and sanitized? If our minds are incomplete, are we our true selves?...Under the direction of Anne Kauffman, the acting is seamless. And this carefully calibrated 70-minute meditation on morality and memories exerts a gentle but insistent tug. But it doesn't doesn't dive deep enough to make a lasting impact.
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Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel