There’s something slightly off about Walter, one of four (or is it six?) characters in Marjorie Prime, the startling and profound new drama by Jordan Harrison now at Playwrights Horizons. Walter’s recall is prodigious and he’s unflaggingly kind, but his social rhythm is a bit geeky. When he hears something new, he says, “I’ll remember that fact.” When he can’t answer a question, he says, “I’m afraid I don’t have that information” as if he were a tech-support agent trying to help you with your phone bill. Marjorie, his wife, doesn’t mind. At 85, with her own memory mostly shot, she is grateful to have Walter’s to remind her of the old days: how they met and married, had children, survived tragedy. But that’s odd, too, because Walter appears to be a glossy young man of 30. (He’s played, with perfectly calibrated artificiality, by the glossy young Noah Bean.) Also, Walter died a few years back.
Walter is a “prime”: a holographic companion customized by a company called Senior Serenity to offer Marjorie comfort and encouragement. “A few zillion pixels” make him appear to be the youthful Walter that Marjorie most wants to see; presumably Marjorie’s daughter, Tess, and son-in-law, Jon, have provided the necessary photographs to feed the illusion. They have also provided the necessary biographical and psychological data, which through the self-improving algorithms of artificial intelligence, and instantaneous access to the world’s knowledge base in the ether, have by the time of the play’s action brought Walter Prime so close to Walter that Marjorie often forgets he’s a simulacrum. So do we, except that in some ways he’s better than a real spouse: When not in use, he sits pleasantly on a sofa, smiling and ready and silent.
The year is 2062 — not so far in the future as it may seem. (Toddlers today will just be pushing 50 then, and Harrison himself, like Marjorie, will be 85.) Likewise, the prime technology isn’t a far leap from the chatbots and virtual-reality holography already in use. The play subtly yet assiduously closes any expected emotional gap as well: Daughters still struggle with their mothers; mothers still flirt with doctors; everyone still grieves as the losses pile up. (The primes are not just for the elderly but for anyone craving the companionship of a departed loved one.) It is a wholly recognizable world — a “prime” of ours, if you will; even though the sterile environment in which Marjorie lives is wired to play Vivaldi at the mere mention of his name, Vivaldi is still being played. (And Jif peanut butter is still being preferred to the natural kind.) The point is that this is not science fiction: “Science fiction is here,” says Tess, who has trouble warming to Walter Prime as a pseudo-father. “Every day is science fiction.”
It’s true that Marjorie Prime is fundamentally a realistic work, and a brilliant one at that. But it shares with that genre the problem of surprise: There’s not much more I can tell you about the plot without spoiling part of the experience. (The final scene is a killer.) A crucial difference, though, is that the play’s twists are not the arbitrary chain-yanks of most sci-fi drama; they (and the way you absorb them) are integral to the questions Harrison is raising. What’s more, these are human, not technological, questions: Where do others live within us? Why (and what) do we mourn when they die? Is there such a thing as a soul, distinguishable from the facts and habits of replicable behavior?
If you have ever pawed through the detritus of a loved one’s life — the letters, the email accounts, the junk drawers — you will know just how powerful, how painful, these questions can be. That in this production they are rendered natural as well, despite the amusing technological frame through which Harrison explores them, is the result of the superior ensemble acting of the cast, under Anne Kauffman’s beautifully balanced direction. (At 80 minutes, the play does not seem even a minute too short — or too long.) As Marjorie, Lois Smith, herself 85, performs the amazing trick of capturing all the traits the character is described as having, but in semi-decrepitude, like a scenic ruin; her vanity, her precision, her goodness, and the limitations of that goodness are all devastatingly rendered in swiftly passing flashes. Lisa Emery makes of Tess an instantly recognizable figure: the beleaguered daughter promoted to caretaker, trying to untangle a complicated relationship when there is almost no time left to do so. (She also bears the brunt of the most wrenching changes as the plot moves forward.) And Stephen Root, as her good-guy husband, steadily banks his emotional fires for the moment when they must flame up in grief. It’s to Kauffman’s credit that these three, along with Bean as Walter, manage somehow to seem like a real family, despite being deployed in several noncontemporaneous time schemes; is this another kind of artificial intelligence?
No, it’s real, but no less rare for that. And though you will soon enough be able to see Marjorie Prime as a film (starring Smith along with Geena Davis, Tim Robbins, and Jon Hamm) I can’t help feeling, as Tess does, that the better experience is live. At any rate, it is the more precious experience. Humans may still have Jif in 47 years but it’s unclear whether they will still have theater. In case they don’t, see Marjorie Prime now, because it will be, even then, a play worth remembering.
* * *
For entirely different reasons, I won’t say much about the Transport Group’s new production of Once Upon a Mattress. Certainly it’s not that I’d be giving any plot twists away; everyone knows the story. The 1959 musical, which made Carol Burnett a star, works a series of late-vaudeville changes on the classic fable of the Princess and the Pea; in this case, the Princess is no fading flower but a leather-lunged hoyden about as delicate as an anvil. Still, Winnifred (called Fred) must pass the haughty Queen Aggravain’s absurd test of royal sensitivity if she wants to marry Prince Dauntless and thus restore order to the musical-comedy kingdom.
No, I recuse myself because of my connection to the material — and I don’t just mean that I played Sir Studley at camp and Prince Dauntless in high school. (Who didn’t?) Mary Rodgers, who wrote the music, was a dear friend; when she died in June, 2014, we had been working together for two years on her memoirs. (Acting as her “prime,” I am finishing them.) So take it with whatever amount of salt you need that I find the score — the lyrics are by the brilliant Marshall Barer — to be charming, surprising, apt, and funny. That last is the rarest; getting the shape of the musical line just right to land a great joke is more difficult than a double acrostic. But over and over, and especially in the song “Shy,” she does it, setting the title word on a big belted foghorn of a note that hilariously belies the lyric. Jackie Hoffman as Fred may be decades too old for the role, and her hoooty head voice all wrong for the part’s higher altitudes, but short of Burnett who else could make such hay of this sort of humor?
The different sort of humor that John Epperson (in his high-camp Lypsinka persona) brings to the role of Aggravain makes for a terrific contrast, and a visual pun whenever the antagonists appear together: Epperson well over six feet in towering Crawford wigs, Hoffman as small (and beleaguered-looking) as a Roz Chast cartoon. Otherwise, the production falls into many of the traps that can make the book (though not the score) seem stylistically dated; oddly, it’s a show that works beautifully in amateur productions but that tends to look amateurish in professional ones. Still, Transport Group has given us an opportunity to hear the score well sung and, in a reduced orchestration by Frank Galgano and Matt Castle, played with period verve.
Mattress was Rodgers’s first full-scale musical; she was 28 when it opened. It has since become a classic, even if it had to change theaters three times during its initial Broadway run. (She helped promote it as “the most moving show in town.”) Why she did not go on to have the composing career of her father (Richard Rodgers) or the fifth of her six children (Adam Guettel) is a subject for another occasion; what Mattress gives us is a sampler of what we missed as a result. Sometimes it’s the harmonic adventurousness I treasure, sometimes the way she always finds the musical equivalent of the mot juste. But mostly it’s the great good fun she’s packed into every corner of the score; the laughing ’50s saxes even sound like her. Whatever more we may have wanted from her, she had cause to feel, as Fred sings in the show-stopping “Happily Ever After” near the end, “thoroughly satisfied.”
Marjorie Prime is at Playwrights Horizons through January 3.
Once Upon a Mattress is at Abrons Arts Center through January 3.