Sci-fi’s favorite bogeyman has to be the sentient robot; from Cylons (Battlestar Galactica) to Skynet (Terminator), the idea of an artificial intelligence takeover scares us good. In reality, the robot revolution is a concern, but, for the moment at least, mostly for reasons of economics, as machines render humans “redundant” across the employment spectrum. A twist on that nightmare scenario is now the subject of Marjorie Prime, Jordan Harrrison’s foray into the debate (and 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist): instead of human life being replaced by machines, what if the dead could be too?
To be clear, this isn’t “just” a more macabre form of taxidermy than what pet owners do to their dearly departed Fluffy’s and Spot’s. In Harrison’s vision, these are robots (“primes”) designed to replace a lost spouse or parent or child or whomever, by recording data about the dead person that is fed to them, not through code, but through simple stories and anecdotes. In other words, you can talk to your mom’s prime about all the things you know about her, as well as all the things you never could discuss when she was alive and her robot will record it and use it to develop a relationship with you, albeit a relationship whose parameters you have defined. While the play explicitly takes up the AI debate, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is often the better reference here.
At first, however, the prime fulfills a noble function. Marjorie is an 86-year old woman, mother to Tess, grandmother to three, and Walter’s widow for the last 10 years. Since her memory is failing and she lives alone, Tess’s husband, John, gets her a prime that looks just like her husband as a young man. The point isn’t for Marjorie to believe that AI “Walter” is the real one; instead, he is there to recite back to her the stories she and Walter built their lives around: their beloved dogs, their children, their struggles and their losses. Marjorie likes their conversations, and Tess and John find she is both more alert and more in touch with herself through her memories. So far, so good.
But if we are students of our sci-fi, we know what direction this story is going (and if you’re not, stop reading here). While AI Walter sits patiently on the couch waiting to be called into service, the human trio will suffer further losses, though, of course, it’s nothing a new prime can’t fix, for a little while at least. But each successive robot is more disturbing because of the uses the living make of it: to assuage guilt, to have the relationship they always wanted, or to simply deny the reality of death. Frankly, things get a bit creepy in Marjorie Prime.
Underscoring that unease, the artificial and the natural are at odds throughout Anne Kauffman’s production. Designer Laura Jellinek has imagined Marjorie’s home as a mint-green, too-clean sanctuary from the outside world, with little “futuristic” touches like cupboards that open up rather than out like a Delorean car door and a voice-programmed home audio system. “Walter” is so “real” you might at first attribute Noah Bean’s stiff performance to bad acting, until Marjorie chides him for not being such a good version of her husband after all. In contrast to Walter, who looks like a J. Crew model but has the charisma of a store mannequin, Lois Smith’s Marjorie is profoundly human, in a biological sense, as her bodily functions deteriorate, and in a psychological sense as well, with reflections at her disposal that are deeply felt because they come from life experience. The primes’ limitations as far as feelings go are emphasized by the human trios’ emotional suffering. For a moment, however, while Tess (Lisa Emery) is breaking down, it seems almost preferable to be in AI Walter’s place: forever young, always ready with the right answer, never hindered by regret or sadness or doubt. Indeed, the primes appear to be gaining the upper hand on their “handlers:” several times, Walter is isolated in a beam of light on a dark stage, as if he were getting ideas from somewhere other than the humans.
But mostly the AI conceit feels like a device for examining the one, inherently human condition that no robot can know: death and grieving. The story-telling process of programming the primes, led by the likable and sensitive John (Stephen Root) who sees only the good in the technology, offers the most interesting parts of the drama; isn’t this what we do everyday in fact, in our own minds, finding reasons and rationalizations for the things that life throws us and trying to convince other people of our conclusions? Isn’t all of human history a big story anyway, where “truth” belongs to the one with the most compelling narrative? This is where Marjorie Prime has the most to say; the plot surprises afforded by the AI story come off as mere provocation, although Harrison’s imagined premise of a market for indestructible loved ones, in a society that has discarded the rituals of mourning in favor of constant happiness and immediate gratification, is probably not far off.
When the robots take over, you can remember that Jordan Harrison predicted it here. In Marjorie Prime, they look and act just like us and understand us even better than ourselves, with the clinical, logical distance of a therapist. How could we ever fight them off? The last scene is the clincher. though; even after we are gone, our robots will keep playing out our insecurities, our fears, our nagging memories. When the end of the world comes, there won’t be silence, just a deafening group session. Maybe that’s the scariest sci-fi scenario anyone could dream up.