Who wants to be the first kid on the block to own a robot? Get in line behind writer Jordan Harrison (“Orange is the New Black”), an original thinker who’s fixated on sci-fi matters like re-visiting the past (“Maple & Vine”) and creating artificial intelligence, the subject of his new play. “Marjorie Prime” — already in the works as a film directed by Michael Almereyda and starring Jon Hamm, Geena Davis and Lois Smith — envisions a day in the near future when we’ll be able to program robots to serve as humanoid companions for the old, the infirm and the lonely. The play, premiering at Playwrights Horizons with Smith in the cast, is also a sensitive study of family dynamics, which makes it all the more engaging.
“I sound like whoever I talk to,” says “Walter” (Noah Bean), acknowledging one of the flaws of these not-entirely-lifelike robotic companions, supplied by a service known as Senior Serenity and known as “primes.” His memory bank also occasionally spits up jolting generic lines like: “Tell me more about your mother.” Rather than true replicas of loved ones, these artificial-intelligence computer programs are more like makeovers — idealized images of how the survivors want to remember them.
But 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. There’s that wonderful old standby about how Marjorie and Walter acquired their dog, Toni. And the one about Jean-Pierre, the professional tennis player who pursued Marjorie for 50 years.
Sadly, Marjorie’s memory is slipping and she finds herself forgetting some of Walter-prime’s best yarns, like the sweet story of how the real Walter proposed to Marjorie after they saw “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” But this old lady hasn’t lost her sass, which keeps bubbling up in Smith’s impish performance. Mulling over the fact that Julia Roberts is now “forever etched upon our lives,” she coyly suggests that they rewrite that scenario by pretending that she and Walter saw “Casablanca” instead.
Certain real-life stories, however, are off-limits. Marjorie doesn’t want to hear a word about her late son, Damien, who was always a bit strange and committed suicide at the age of 13. Just as she won’t allow herself to notice that her high-strung daughter is also inclined toward suicide, a condition handled with emotional discretion in Emery’s delicately understated perf.
Although Tess relates to her mother primarily as a caretaking chore, Marjorie and Jon enjoy a warm adult-to-adult relationship, nicely conveyed by Root’s soft-spoken performance. Her son-in-law doesn’t get her ancient pop-culture references to ZZ Top and Beyonce, but they delight in repeating familiar family jokes — like the one about Marjorie’s dislike of Jon’s lumberjack beard — without acknowledging that these jokes are sanitized versions of deeper domestic conflicts.
Tess doesn’t reveal her true affection for her mother until the old woman has passed on and been replaced by Marjorie-prime, who is less confrontational and considerably sweeter in Smith’s generous reading. She’s also better dressed (by costumer Jessica Pabst) and smiles more — so much more that it’s out of character and Tess has to ask her to tone it down.
The scribe insightfully notes that people are more honest and forthcoming with the primes than with living persons. In the process of programming a less threatening version of Marjorie, Tess surprises herself by speaking with a fondness she never showed to her mother when she was alive. “Maybe I’m the Marjorie you still have things to say to,” the prime shrewdly notes.
Tess, who doesn’t trust the new technology, flinches from this expression of “pity from a computer.” But in fact, the pseudo-Marjorie does seem capable of genuine feeling. “Do you have emotions?” Tess asks her. “Do you feel anything?” She certainly wants to, the prime admits, suggesting that she really wants to be “more human.”
As heartwarming as that sounds, 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. But in the meantime, there are occasions when we are overwhelmed with longing for the loved ones we’ve lost. And for these occasions, we could all use a prime.