Marjorie is dying. Not only is she dying, but her mind is demented. She is under the care of her daughter Tess and son-in-law John, but her fraught relationship with Tess and spotty memory make every day a trial.
The year is 2062. Apparently, we haven't yet found a talk-therapy fix for these very basic human issues.
The fix we have found for a different kid of problem, however, is a prime, an animatronic humanoid robot that replaces a deceased loved one; Marjorie (Carolyn Wickwire), in her ailing state, has Walter Prime, a younger version of her husband (played by David Bellowe) to keep her company.
This is a show about world-building. Specifically, world-building by way of memory, by way of humanity; creating a human from nothing but words. In the same way that the more we speak to our smartphone, the better it transcribes our speech, the more that the characters tell the primes, the more that prime becomes like the person it is replacing.
So like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in converse—imprinting memories on a blank slate rather than deleting them in order to become one—the characters re-sculpt their loved ones. And all I could do in the audience was think of the thousands of ways this expanded like a fractal into my own memories, my own relationship with technology, my own relationships with the people I love and what I'd do if I felt them slipping away.
My own earliest internet memories or my thoughts about Amazon's Alexa were what stuck with me once I left the theater; autobiographical brain machinations are what still churn a few days later. The show was technically slick and aesthetically pleasing, the acting perfectly passable—but the themes are what still give me pause. At the penultimate scene, as the rest of the audience sniffled around me (reportedly the entire cast cried at the very first table read), I sat like a robot, just thinking about the internet.
Some of the acting felt forced and glancing, which left me a bit cold in my seat, despite playwright Jordan Harrison's script that sometimes edged toward the cloying or emotionally manipulative (though I'm apparently in the minority with that opinion; it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 2015). The blocking was simple, if even unimaginative; but this show is all about conversation, so bells and whistles could have gotten muddy.
Wickwire's Marjorie is quite sweet. Even when delivering zingy one-liners or subtly racist quips, she's a lovable woman. That's a problem here, though, because Karen Ryan's Tess has the sharp, impatient coldness you'd expect from an actress who delivered a chilling Fräulein Kost in the playhouse's Cabaret in 2017 or the troubled Judy in last summer's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. We could stand to like Marjorie less, if only to further Tess' motivation; but as it is, we are left without a clear picture of the difficult version of Marjorie that raised her. It does, however, create more empathy for Jeff Nell's John, who treats Marjorie more kindly and gets frustrated with his wife's snark.
The technical aspects of this show were most impressive. While the landscape does feel futuristic, it's not one of those comically overdone speculations care of 1950s sci-fi. Costume designer Ali Olhausen chose stuff folks would wear today, but with a slightly more militarized and clean-lined (and quite fabulous) outfit for Tess. Marjorie is bedecked in softer fabrics and colors, purples in silk and satin. The highly geometric set by David Carter looks like the home of a particularly rich tech mogul in the Bay Area or something, presumably what all homes will look like by 2062. Lined by LED ropes that pulsed on and off, and occasionally "breathed" like the power light on a sleeping Macbook, the inanimate aspects of the set felt fittingly alive. (I was inevitably reminded of that short story about a sentient yet post-apocalyptic home, There Will Come Soft Rains by Ray Bradbury, which has creeped me out since about 1996.)
Especially after chatting with lighting designer Annie Liu, the thought and care that went into the technical aspects of the show became even more remarkable.
Of course, when a show's tech is nearly invisible, that is when it is best—so particularly notable here is a glowing panel on the back wall of the set that controls the house and the primes therein. Designed to look like an iPad-like device set in the wall (and that's what I thought it was), it's actually a tablet that is controlled not by the actors' touch, but by hundreds of cues from the booth. It was flawless. Designed by Vaughn Irving and manipulated by the tech crew, it seemed like an innocuous part of the set until I realized just how much work went into it—and then it practically took center stage in my memory. I wish only that it was larger, to see the effort put into it.
I need to give a nod, too, to the run crew, who changed the set between scenes. Stephanie Baacke and Lada Ballowe were swift and, to repeat a word, flawless. Huzzah to these unsung heroes of the stage.
Marjorie Prime was kind of a weird show. Not because it was presented in any particularly unique way, but rather because it was bland, in many ways—yet it still made me think. All the connections formed by this show in my brain could never be recreated. How could someone make a prime of me? It would be impossible. No one can recreate another human. It will never be enough.
And maybe that's okay.