Lois Smith is Still in Her (MARJORIE) PRIME


Did I miss the point of Jordan Harrison’s MARJORIE PRIME?

As I was watching the current production at Playwrights Horizons, I assumed that I was figuring it out.

Now I’m not so sure.

The play clearly takes place in the future, a time when all you have to do to hear a work by Vivaldi is to say his name aloud; his music will then immediately fill your living room. When characters speak of Julia Roberts, ZZ Top and iPods, the tone is clearly nostalgic.

So 85-year-old Marjorie is someone with whom many of today’s Playwrights Horizons attendees can relate; they’re now around the same age Marjorie “was” in 2016.

Marjorie has many standard senior-itis problems: “bad days” and “accidents” are the euphemisms employed by Tess and Jon, respectively her grown daughter and son-in-law.

Are the picking up on the fact that Marjorie often talks to a thirtysomething man whom she identifies as her husband Walter? During a casual conversation between the two, we hear that Walter died only a few years ago. Don’t assume that Marjorie had robbed the cradle or now has another problem symptomatic of old age: delusion. It’s more complicated than that.

No. In the future, playwright Harrison surmises – or predicts or wishes – that if we’re willing to plunk some money down, dead people will come back into our lives at whatever age we want them. They won’t be real, but they’ll be damn close, thanks to a combination of artificial intelligence and holograms that Harrison calls “Primes.”

After a few scenes, Marjorie and Tess are talking and then suddenly Tess ruefully observes “I’m talking to my dead mother!” Ah! So by now Marjorie has died and Tess has “primed” her back into existence. Hence, “Marjorie Prime.”

But wait! While one can easily understand why Marjorie would summon up Walter at an age when he’s young and healthy, why would Tess want a Marjorie who’s old, infirm and in constant need of care? Wouldn’t anyone want to see a loved one in his or her – you should pardon the expression – prime?

Here’s where I thought I might be on the wrong track. Even so, I had plenty of pleasures watching MARJORIE PRIME. Harrison’s excellent dialogue and pungent character development allow us to infer that when the real Marjorie was in her actual prime, she was quite the sharp cookie. During her lucid moments she still comes out with many a potent observation; Lois Smith’s Marjorie lets us see the young mind beneath the layers of old age that are seemingly as thick as sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic rock.

One of Smith’s most wonderful moments comes when Marjorie tries hard to remember the name of a certain film of yore. After a short struggle, she comes up with “Rosemary’s” but knows she hasn’t yet mastered the whole title and that she’s only halfway home. Finally she’s able to pull it from the recesses of her mind: “Baby!” The look of beatific satisfaction on Smith’s face triumphantly says “I can still do it!” and makes us so happy for her.

Noah Bean, who plays Walter, will have to wait for another vehicle to show us what he can do; the character isn’t all that much more than a walk-on. Lisa Emery, however, gives us ample opportunity to once again realize what a fine actress she is. She manages to convey both the love that Tess has for her mother along with the irritation of a daughter whose time must be consumed with caretaking.

The latter feeling comes through when she semi-snarls, “I don’t know why we’re keeping people alive for so long.”

Stephen Root’s Jon will be cherished by many mothers-in-law in the audience. They’ll wish that they had sons-in-law as attentive and devoted as both the character Harrison has created and that Root has brought to vivid life.

Most plays or films set in the future make some concession to décor and fashion. Not here. Laura Jellinek’s roomy apartment set says Right Now. It’s sterile, which is in keeping with Anne Kauffman’s sterile direction. That is most certainly not a criticism, for both the set and direction complement the sad mood that Harrison has created.

Jessica Pabst has everyone dressed in what seems to be 2015 fashions. Although no one can accurately predict what people will be wearing decades from now, should she have tried? On the other hand, are men and women wearing clothes that are so much different from, say, 50 years ago? Oh, here and there we’ve seen a tie-dyed granny dress and a Nehru jacket, but by and large, men and women’s fashions have remained relatively constant, so Pabst’s choices can’t really be faulted. She and Jellinek may have also wanted to go easy on any futuristic look so that they could initially keep the Harrison’s secret that the play isn’t taking place in the here and now.

(Oh, well – I’ve ruined THAT for you, haven’t I?)

And I may have led you astray on what MARJORIE PRIME is actually about.

Let me explain. After I see a play and have written my review, I then (and only then) do an Internet search to see what others have had to say about the show. My Googling gave me Patrick Hipes’ article for Deadline Hollywood, telling of MARJORIE PRIME’s soon-to-be-released film version in which Lois Smith has reprised her role (thank the Lord!); we’ll also as Geena Davis play Tess, Tim Robbins portray Jon and Jon Hamm as Walter.

But here’s Hipes’ description of Harrison’s plot:

“Marjorie is an aging violinist and a clever, wry woman who, at age 85, finds that her memory is failing her. Availing herself of a service that provides holographic recreations of deceased loved ones as their survivors would like them remembered, she spends her time with her anxious, quick-witted daughter Tess and easygoing son-in-law Jon, and with an imperfect copy of her deceased husband Walter as he looked in his 30s and 40s.”

One COULD infer from that statement that both Tess and Jon are dead, too. True, one does die as the play continues, but both? If that’s the case, well, Jordan Harrison, you could have fooled me – and apparently did, if I’m correctly reading Hipes.

Of course, perhaps Hipes made the mistake either in his interpretation or in the ambiguous way he detailed the plot. As The King in a certain musical has been saying since 1951, “Is a puzzlement.”

This brings up one of the most delightful technical innovations that Harrison also sees in our future. If we say something that we wish we hadn’t, all we have to do is say “Delete! Delete!” and it the statement vanishes as if we’d never said it in the first place. Now THAT’S an innovation I’m looking forward to – especially if I missed the point of MARJORIE PRIME and am duty bound to take back this interpretation of it.