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Prime numbers, solitary types, are divisible only by themselves and one. They’re the loneliest numbers — and that makes them the most human of integers. Like primes, we’re ultimately the product of our plural experiences and our indivisible singularity. This makes them a good metaphor for the fragile uniqueness of human consciousness.
But in the not-so-distant future depicted by Jordan Harrison’s captivating new play, Marjorie Prime (now playing at Playwrights Horizons), human beings are suddenly divisible by two. Humanoid computers — ironically called “primes” — provide companionship to the elderly, serving as combination caregivers and aide-mémoire. The androids store their owners’ memories as a hedge against the moment when the fallible wetware finally breaks down and they begin to lose themselves. Like precocious children, the primes learn by parroting back, becoming more human even as their owners slip further into dotage — passing each other on the staircase of sentience.
The first prime we meet is Walter (Noah Bean). He belongs to Marjorie (Lois Smith), a sharp-tongued WASP growing mellower in old age. He’s a perfect doppelgänger of her deceased husband’s younger self. (For whatever reason, a prime’s appearance and disposition seem to be based on unfinished psychic business.) A keen listener, blandly kind to a fault — even a little flirty sometimes — Walter is a creature of pure semantic memory. He can recall every anecdote and mnemonic cue, but he can’t create any new experiences. And he’s only as good as what he has been told: Piecing together composite biography, he preserves evasions and half-truths as readily as he does facts. As we soon learn, Marjorie’s memories omit some painful realities.
I won’t give away the subsequent plot, because the play’s eerie quality depends on its uncanny substitutions. Suffice to say that the primes are more durable than the people they surrogate, summoning the specter of a world populated by the former caregivers of dead humans, living on in borrowed identities, preserving the past in digital memory (some of it false).
Emphasizing the transitory nature of true human perceptions, director Anne Kauffman’s production limns eloquent compositions for fleeting intervals — a backlit silhouette here, a haloed still life there. These are images that radiate meaning but don’t resolve easily into narrative data. And the excellent ensemble, called upon to play both people and primes, subtly delineates the differences between unthinking human movement and its machine-learned facsimile. A little stiffness in the posture, an overeager question, a too-cheery expression of interest — these subtleties suggest uncanny approximations of sapience, not the spontaneous thing-in-itself.
The looming prospect of artificial intelligence always invites definitions of the human kind, and Harrison asks the perennial questions: As time robs us of our faculties, when do we cease to be ourselves? Conversely, at what point could an avid machine, having acquired the accumulated memories of its owner, effectively assume that person’s personality as well? Harrison’s vision is more benign than that of, say, Blade Runner or Ex Machina. His computers don’t want to destroy us. They just want to be the best humans they can be.
Marjorie Prime‘s ending offers an allegory of a machine-dominated future as arid and self-referential as it is chipper: Humanity, in its decline, has engineered its own bland replacements — a retirement home for humanity itself. Endlessly telling the same stories, the primes will live in the past, forever.
By Jordan Harrison
416 West 42nd Street