Review

Playing with memory in 'Marjorie Prime'

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Daringly, a few of the characters are therapeutic holographic doubles or 'primes' in 'Marjorie Prime'

What is it that everyone is so concerned about losing these days? Oh, that's right: their memory.

Fortunately, I have my smartphone to get me out of a jam when I can't remember the name of that actress who was just in that movie, you know the one with the Oscar winner, everybody loves him, oh, come on … (No shame in admitting that I've outsourced about 15% of my working memory to IMDb.)

In his new play, "Marjorie Prime," which is having its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in a production directed by Les Waters, Jordan Harrison explores the fraught subject of memory from a variety of fascinating angles, including senior dementia, our ever-increasing dependence on technology and that old Freudian standby, the perils of repression.

Daringly, a few of the characters, all of whom are played by flesh-and-blood actors, are holographic doubles or "primes," which simulate the presence of loved ones for therapeutic reasons. But best not to give too much away, for Harrison intentionally challenges us to find our footing in a theatrical world that questions the way remembering and forgetting govern our relationships to each other and to ourselves.

If the work is ultimately more conceptually intriguing than dramatically satisfying, it's the kind of experience that keeps unfolding in the mind long after the 80-minute play is over. And for all its fancy, futuristic invention, "Marjorie Prime," which also grapples with the hidden legacy of suicide in a family, is primarily concerned with something eternal: the way our humanity is shaped and warped by the mysterious ebbs and flows of memory.

The play begins with Marjorie (played by that earthy treasure of the American theater, Lois Smith), an 85-year-old with severe memory problems whiling away her day in a leather recliner opposite a man young enough to be her grandson but who turns out to be her husband. Her late husband, to be precise, but in a much younger incarnation.

Walter (Jeff Ward) is a computer-programmed, pixel-generated companion brought in to keep Marjorie's mind from atrophying further. Shady Lane, the assisted-living facility in which Marjorie has a cookie-cutter apartment (austerely decorated by set designer Mimi Lien in various shades of soul-erasing beige), has recommended this form of therapy.

Tess (Lisa Emery), Marjorie's frosty daughter always spoiling for a fight, is suspicious. But Jon (Frank Wood), Tess' husband, is enthusiastically on board, offering background information about his mother-in-law's salty past to enhance the "prime's" conversational acumen. Conflict between the caretakers ensues.

"Science fiction is here, Jonathan," Tess complains. "We buy these things that already know our moods and what we want for lunch, even though we don't know ourselves," and "we tell them our deepest secrets, even though we have no earthly idea how they work."

Worst of all, says Tess with more than a hint of jealousy, "we treat them like loved ones." This last point might seem ironic coming from a woman who's always pushing people away with her quarrelsome objections, yet underlying her testiness is an open wound of childhood neglect longing to be healed.

Tess' brother, Damian, hanged himself when she was a girl. He killed the family dog too, not wanting to die alone. And it is through the tale of the dog that we learn not just the story of what happened but also the way in which this trauma elicited a dance of silence in the household that stymied the family's grief and capacity to be open.

Since much of the family history is disclosed through the programming of the primes (the others come later), the play asks the audience to piece together the various narratives like a detective. Complicating matters is that not everything fed to the primes turns out to be true, though the fabrications inevitably reveal much about the fears and desires of the fabricators.

"Marjorie Prime" is a smart new play that doesn't always feel particularly welcoming. Harrison, a writer on the Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black," doesn't exactly specialize in ingratiating characters. Marjorie and Tess at times put me in mind of Bruce Norris' contentious crew, and like much of Norris' work, there's an abstract quality to Harrison's writing here that stems from ideas being more highly valued than their personal embodiment.

Much like Harrison's "Maple and Vine," a play about a community pretending to live in the 1950s to escape the technologically dizzying rat race, "Marjorie Prime" has an audacious concept that isn't easy to dramatically sustain. This is the kind of work that would probably benefit from a more intimate space, though the Taper has gathered a first-rate cast under Waters' expert direction.

Smith, a canny veteran with heartland tenderness who has excelled in the plays of Horton Foote, gives piquancy and sass to this old woman who may not be able to remember much but hasn't forgotten that she once had a robust sex life. She makes it impossible to know whether Marjorie was a selfish mother or a devastated one. The ambiguity is as real as the clouds in her character's mind.

Emery has a rare stage virtue: She's not afraid of being disliked. Tess' sharp edges (best summed up in the line, "We're West Coast WASPS, we don't do therapy") aren't softened in the least, yet through the truthfulness of her character's resentments, Emery allows us to feel the undertow of suffering.

Wood portrays a peacemaker in Jon who manages to be the most amiable character onstage yet who also might be operating from blind self-interest. Wood never tips his hand, but the possibility is just quietly there.

Ward has the toughest assignment in many respects, playing a computerized gadget that isn't fully explained. He slyly manages to show, if not actual emotions, the desire to please humans who count on emotional reflections to understand themselves and their confounding place in this world.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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