Families and Artificial Intelligence at the Taper

The world premiere Marjorie Prime centers on an 85-year-old woman who is losing her memory. Lois Smith plays the title character and Frank Wood is her son-in-law, Jonathan. The show is at the Mark Taper Forum through Oct. 19.  

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Science fiction is a reliable draw in film, and movies from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Alien to The Matrix and beyond have generated billions in ticket sales.

The genre is far less common in the theater. Still, it pops up every so often, whether in plays by the late Ray Bradbury or others.


Science fiction comes back in Marjorie Prime, a world premiere by Jordan Harrison that opened at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 21. However, rather than take on an attack by creatures from another planet or some such spectacle, the science fiction question at hand is more personal: Could someone tell if his or her family members were replaced by a computer?

Marjorie Prime, which runs through Oct. 19, is built around an 85-year-old woman in an assisted living facility who is losing her memory. With the urging of the staff and Marjorie’s son-in-law, a mysterious young man visits the elderly woman. The theme of recall — what is remembered, what is past and what is present — is explored throughout the play. 

The show is set in a futuristic time when technology may be able to add a new dimension to the hardship of losing loved ones. In a podcast on the Center Theatre Group website, Harrison calls his work “emotional sci-fi.”

The story is inspired by the 1950 Turing Test, in which a person has to figure out whether a human or a machine is answering an interrogator’s questions. During tests over the last 64 years, people have generally succeeded in identifying which answers came from man and which were generated by nuts, bolts and computer code. This summer, however, a Russian program convinced one-third of participants that it was actually a 13-year-old boy from Ukraine. 

Referencing the unprecedented win for artificial intelligence, Marjorie Prime director Les Waters pointed out that the gap between what humans can do versus what a computer can accomplish is narrowing with each passing year. However, humans still have a playful quality and can read between the lines of what actually is being said, Waters noted. Artificial intelligence, he added, isn’t aware of irony or subtext. At least not yet.

Still, the show asks a deeply personal question, Waters said: If technology offered a less-complete substitute for a person you deeply miss, would you take it? 

“The play asks what would you do to keep someone you love with you? How do you hold families together?” he said. 

Waters has worked with Harrison before, directing his Finn in the Underworld in 2005 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Doris to Darlene in New York in 2007. This marks the first time a Harrison play has been mounted in Downtown Los Angeles.

Marjorie Prime presented some unique challenges, Waters noted. He had to direct actors to play the authentic character, as well as computer-generated versions of those characters. 

The 80-minute show has undergone readings at other theaters. Still, Frank Wood, who plays Marjorie’s son-in-law Jonathan, said there is an excitement to being the first one to take on a part.

“Everyone involved in the first production is in a state of invention and discovery and conversation,” said the 54-year-old actor. “The questions are more far ranging and there’s always a problem-solving aspect: How do you put a script on its feet?” 

The bigger issue may concern getting computers on their feet, and then keeping people one step ahead of them. On the CTG podcast, Harrison noted that computers keep getting better and are doing more things that humans can do. Perhaps, he said, the only move left for human beings is to become better at being human.

Marjorie Prime runs through Oct. 19 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.


© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014