Pittsburgh Public Theater ends its 44th season with Jordan Harrison’s play, Marjorie Prime. It’s the final play in the first season under new artistic director Marya Sea Kaminski who also doubles as the show’s director.
The play centers on “primes,” which are AI-generated, pixelated replicas of our dearly departed. We see people cycle out as the living and cycle in as primes, starting with Walter Prime (Ben Blazer). He’s a 30-year old AI version of 86-year old Marjorie’s (Jill Tanner) departed husband. The primes are both eerily realistic and just a little off. They need to be educated by their human companions who optimize them for perfection through sharing stories and personal details, making the primes an always on listener. Their stated goal is to “get better,” which is mildly ironic, as Walter is a part of a “senior serenity” program and serves as a companion for Marjorie whose health is rapidly declining. They’re a human-shaped Alexa, present but absent, hovering and not participating unless called upon, but still in receptivity mode so they know to respond if beckoned. Blazer is perfectly adequate as Walter, but the primes are pleasantly unmemorable, making it difficult to truly shine in that role.
Harrison’s play premiered in 2014, so it’s a new play as far as the theatrical canon. However, unlike the primes, it’s already aging poorly given technology advances in dog years. Harrison’s writing comes across as someone who doesn’t necessarily have a grip on technology-writing about technology. Basically, it’s more today’s table stakes than tomorrow’s vision. For example, Marjorie’s son-in-law, Jon (Nathan Hinton), dims the lights and adjusts the music volume with his watch. Given the play is supposed to be set in 2062, that’s seriously underwhelming.
In another scene, Jon and his wife, Tess (Marjorie’s daughter, played by Daina Michelle Griffith), are unloading frozen Marie Callender’s dinners for Marjorie. While parent company ConAgra, is clearly a wise stock tip, it all seems a bit unimaginative for 2062 given self-driving cars are already cruising the streets of Pittsburgh. Kaminski develops an easy, comfortable rapport between Hinton and Griffith as a married couple. Unfortunately, Michael Schweikardt’s set design plays ride along to the mid-2010s with a mid-century modern set that looks like a perfectly staged home you’d see getting snapped up on a Saturday real estate spin around the South Hills.
While Harrison fumbles with technological intricacies, he excels with dialogue. The play ultimately becomes about storytelling and the ways in which we edit our life stories. The fact that Walter appears to Marjorie at age 30 is no accident. Their son, Damian, committed suicide as a teenager, and Marjorie is unable to talk about him, so she desires an AI version of Walter before parenting, as if they can rewrite their lives and create a different outcome. Walter tells Marjorie her favorite story about how he proposed. It was the night they saw My Best Friend’s Wedding at the movies, a 1997 Julia Roberts chick-flick. Roberts spends most of the movie trying to sabotage her bestie’s wedding plans, so it’s not the most romantic choice. Marjorie wistfully wishes Walter had proposed after they saw Casablanca, a more classically romantic film. In the play’s final scene, Walter tells the story of how he proposed after they saw Casablanca. It’s a small detail, and in his story, you recognize we all engage in “harmless” revisionist history. After all, a more romantic engagement story is inherently more appealing, but his story also makes one question the blurred lines of truth.
As director, Marya Sea Kaminski elegantly handles the shift from human to prime. Marjorie is the first character we see pre/post. Kaminski thoughtfully uses the mechanics of the physical body as a primary indicator. Jill Tanner executes a convincing metamorphosis. Marjorie Prime loses her old lady limp and wears a subtly more rested and neutral expression with a pleasantly bemused smile. She’s suddenly a Xanaxed Stepford wife, but it’s deceiving because there are moments the primes are incredibly realistic. Tess comments on this. She notes Marjorie Prime is “so good” at times “like with that subtle racism” after Marjorie makes a dry sideline comment about Japan, but Tess also notes Marjorie “could smile less.”
The devil is truly in the details when it comes to human nature, and it’s hard to fake all of that. The primes also put the burden of representation onto humans who are participating in the continual refinement of a non-human. Harrison reminds us we’re all heads down in technology. My iPhone notified me my screen time was down 9% from last week, and what should be a triumph over my time oddly felt like an affront from technology. Marjorie’s first line to Walter Prime is “I feel like I have to perform around you,” and it’s that notion of performance that’s unsettling. We all perform within our personal lives and work lives, but what does it mean when we’re regularly performing for AI?
Marjorie Prime calls into question what we feel we should be a given – the ability to easily discern if something is human or not. It’s all reminiscent of an online customer service chat exchange in which you’re unsure if you’re conversing with a chatbot or a human following a script (should I type thank you?). Harrison helps us consider the ethics of technology, and those are relevant questions for all of us humans.
Photography Credit: Michael Henninger
Tiffany Raymond has her PhD in 20th Century American Drama from the University of Southern California where her research focused on labor and social protest theatre. She also has two master’s degrees, one from the University of Southern California and one from the University of Tennessee. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her family. In addition to being a theatre nerd, she’s also a tech geek, avid reader and occasional half-marathon runner.
Categories: Archived Reviews