Robots have been threatening to take over the world—which is to say that people have felt threatened by the possibility of a robot takeover—since at least 1921, when Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the term "robot" for his play R.U.R. In Čapek's scenario, manufactured workers rise up in successful revolt against their creator/masters, killing off pretty much the entire human species.
R.U.R. was prescient but crude. Now that the age of the robot is actually upon us, it seems clear that a violent revolution won't be necessary. Clear to our playwrights and screenwriters, anyway. According to recent showbiz formulations, we're definitely on our way out—but we'll surrender voluntarily to the machines, longing for their stability(The [Curious Case of the] Watson Intelligence) or hoping that they'll help us compensate for emotional loss (A.I. Artificial Intelligence). Envying their indestructibility (the Iron Man franchise) as well as their infinite access to information (Transcendence). Making them part of our ongoing soap opera (The Humans). Even letting them break our hearts as they come to understand how limited we really are in our little flesh envelopes (Her).
Jordan Harrison's 2014 play Marjorie Prime adds to this line of speculation, supplying a quietly funny, quietly terrifying dimension that comes through well in Kimberly Senior's current staging for Writers Theatre.
The year is 2062, and Marjorie is an 85-year-old widow with arthritic joints and iffy bowel control, whose references to 20th-century phenomena like ZZ Top fly right by her fiftysomething daughter, Tess, and son-in-law, Jon. Hers isn't a lamé-caftan-style sci-fi world; Marjorie lives in a west-coast care facility called Senior Serenity that (as realized in Brian Sidney Bembridge's set and Jenny Mannis's costumes) looks an awful lot something out of the mundane present—though perhaps a little more assertively Ikeaesque and more thoroughly bathed in what the audience member next to me called the cool white light of LEDs.
The one incontrovertible innovation is Walter, Marjorie's robotic companion. He doesn't look like a robot. To all outward appearances he's a 30ish guy with a solicitous affect, willing to engage Marjorie on the subject of old movies and listen to her stories about the past. But in fact he's been fabricated to resemble Marjorie's dead husband, Walter, at the moment in his life when he was most vivid to her. What's more, he's still a work in progress: a learning robot whose memory adapts to conversational input, on the theory that it will give him a more authentically human—not to say Walter-like—texture.
Marjorie tells him he's "a good Walter" and, in Mary Ann Thebus's performance, grows flirtatious around him at times, allowing us a sweet glimpse of the Marjorie she once was. Angry, sour, sarcastic Tess, however, considers the 'bot an abomination. Still, when it comes time for Marjorie herself to shuffle off, we find Tess at home with an artificial version of her mother—the Marjorie Prime of the title.
And so it goes. Digital companions accumulate as the play proceeds, until they've all but swept the originals offstage. Yet each of the copies has been fed on information supplied by a human client—information that you and I and Harrison know is necessarily chock-full of muddled memories, suppressed truths, synaptic gaps, and full-out fantasies. Harrison's basically written a one-act update on the garbage in, garbage out axiom: we may disappear from the earth, but those who replace us will be worse still because they won't know where the holes are. Indeed, their therapeutic programming will render them horribly banal, if not exactly bad. R.U.R ends with the last human, Alquist, giving his blessings to a robot couple whom he's realized have learned how to love. Harrison doesn't offer us even that much hope. In his future, our heirs will be nothing more than the sum of the lies we can't help telling ourselves.
All of which makes Marjorie Prime an intriguingly paradoxical choice for Writers Theatre at this juncture, when the company is about to leave its tiny old space at the back of a bookstore and move to a multimillion-dollar building designed for it by Jeanne Gang. A lot is sure to get lost in the move. Here's hoping Writers 2.0 avoids the robots' fate. v