Oh, don’t get up, Pandora already knows what song to play next. When you’re finished bingewatching “The Good Place,” Netflix has a few suggestions, guaranteed to please.
Just let it run. The technology has learned what you want, and it has all the time in the world.
Forward Theater Company closes its ninth season in the Playhouse this month with a play that blurs the lines between how we use technology and how technology uses us right back.
In “Marjorie Prime,” Jordan Harrison’s quietly unsettling 2014 drama, Michael Huftile plays a holographic bundle of reflected memories, designed to comfort an elderly woman with dementia.
It’s 2062, and Walter Prime is designed to look and act like Marjorie’s late husband when he was in his mid-30s. For Marjorie’s daughter and her husband, the Prime softens slightly the endless patience and emotional drain required to care for a parent with severe memory loss.
“It’s company,” says Jon, Marjorie’s patient son-in-law. “It’s no different from what we do for her, only it can be there all the time.”
Infirm and irritable Marjorie, played by veteran Madison actor Judy Kimball, flips from distressed to delighted as she re-experiences her own memories over and over again.
It’s Marjorie who has the first important realizations about life with a Prime. If she doesn’t like the way a story goes, Marjorie tells the Prime a different version. Later, when she’s forgotten again, that altered version of the past is what Walter Prime will feed back to her.
Marjorie also understands that she’s not getting better — it, or he, is.
Jennifer Uphoff Gray directs this ensemble of four to feel intimately used to one another, moving around a soothing Crate & Barrel catalog set (Chris Dunham designed the sunken living room, Pamela Miles selected each glazed pottery mug and coffee table photo book).
That comfort makes an essential baseline as the play, a deliberately paced 83 minutes, moves slowly toward that uncanny valley where the similarity between human being and android feels most disturbing.
Perhaps more than most, “Marjorie Prime” is a play of ideas, and it breathes thanks to the efforts of such appealing actors.
Karen Moeller’s Tess, Marjorie’s beleaguered 50-something daughter, brings years of history to every conversation with her mom. She’s so stressed and frustrated that even the song stuck in Marjorie’s head exists to annoy her.
Tess’s husband Jon, played with affable subtlety by Brian Mani, buffers painful flare-ups between the women, joking that he’s like “human morphine.” Mani and Moeller have an easy rapport, even as Tess’s depression deepens.
Two performers make the transition between their human selves and Primes. This looks both fascinating and creepy as their faces relax, their posture straightens slightly and the worry evaporates from their eyes.
This is the play’s biggest challenge, the only one the actors don’t always meet: the blurry tension between human and humanoid. Primes are built to serve and comfort. The actors must appear less Alexa and more “Good Place” Janet, an operating system so convincingly human that she constantly reminds everyone she’s “not a girl.”
Among the ensemble, Huftile handles this best. His Walter Prime is unflappable, blandly helpful, charming even.
As “Les Miserables” storms the barricades just one floor up at Overture Center, “Marjorie Prime” probes the edges of what makes us human in a cool living room (lit with austere precision by Greg Hofmann).
Upstairs, people are starving and merciless. Downstairs, mothers and daughters are selfish, vain and damaged. Only the Primes remain untroubled, like our smarter, happier, more obliging selves.
What a disturbing thought.