Annie Baker’s ‘Infinite Life’ finds the point in pain
The Daily Beast
September 12, 2023
Pulitzer-winning Annie Baker’s new play, “Infinite Life,” is set in a California clinic, whose characters fast as they confront, and try to make sense of, the pain they are in.
Enthralling, strange, mordant, witty, jolting, mysterious: elements of Annie Baker’s new play, Infinite Life (Atlantic Theater, to Oct 8) echo some of her past masterpieces, like the Pulitzer and Obie-winning The Flick, John, and The Antipodes. A semblance of a real world, and very real people, stand in front of us, yet this also feels a world away from our own—and they too are like us while also more exposed, yet unknowable.
Like these other plays, Infinite Life—a co-production with London’s National Theatre—feels less a conventional dramatic piece than an experience or immersion, a guided walk to a new kind of dramatic territory where the most important skill to exercise is listening. The New York Times recently asked Baker about the key deployment of pauses in her work—on variously long, short, amiable, and disquieting display in Infinite Life. “It was never a conscious decision or aesthetic cultivation on my part,” she said of the “air and spaces” in her work. “It’s just me trying to follow my own pleasure and my own taste and my own ear.”
Infinite Life is set in May 2019 at a clinic two hours north of San Francisco. The lo-fi design by dots shows a collection of drab recliner chairs, and a suggestion of an equally drab patio. The six people we meet, who sit for stretches of time on the chairs, are sick—all in different ways, some for reasons known, some for reasons not immediately clear. They are here to fast in the belief it will help them alleviate some of their physical pain. One very mischievous feature of the setting: they are fasting across the street from a bakery, whose bready smells are a daily cosmic joke.
The play begins and ends with encounters between two of the clinic’s residents: Sofi (Christina Kirk), who is 47, and from Los Angeles, and Eileen (Marylouise Burke), who is in her 70s. In this world, the question that kept recurring to me—is it safe and medically advisable to be fasting given the various physical conditions the people have?—goes unasked. The days of no-food merely stretch on without question. Everyone is signed up to the thesis.
One character makes the point that the fasting can mean the conversations can be pretty wild. It can also makes silences stretch, as the characters think, sleep, and conserve what energies they have. Director James Macdonald paces these deliberately stilted tableaux precisely and with care—we watch the characters watching each other, taking the measure of each other. So much is said with glances, so much is conveyed via expressions only we see.
Indeed, the one technical issue the play has—an important one—is volume. The text is so thick, the stories so involved, the detail so important, a little more oomph decibel-wise would be welcome, whatever naturalism the play aspires to and achieves.
Taking seats alongside Sofi and Eileen are plain-speaking Elaine (Brenda Pressley), slightly vinegary Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), the tough but embattled Yvette (Mia Katigbak), and later a handsome, bare-chested man in silk pants—Nelson (Pete Simpson)—who at first Sofi wonders if she has imagined. He and Sofi are in their 40s, the other women are in their 60s and 70s.
Throughout the play, Sofi is struggling to get through George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda; a struggle that is both funny, as she periodically relates her progress—all that dense text, serpentine sentences and thickets of plot, while fasting—and also its own tolling bell of symbolism. Like Infinite Life, one of Daniel Deronda’s themes is the persistence and meaning of pain.
Ginnie has “auto-immune thyroid stuff, but mostly I’m here for my vertigo,” while Yvette’s tale of illness is a litany of physical horrors that unfurls as an intense piece of poetry, including a body-wide fungal infection that is “resistant to all the normal antifungals, it’s resistant to clotrimazole and econazole and fluconazole and ketoconazole and itraconazole and voriconazole…” Sofi’s illness remains a mystery for almost the duration of the play, and when she finally imagines how it may be cured the answer—her fantasy—is that Nelson can literally fuck it away.
Pain and its discontents are much discussed. Baker recently told Vogue, “The play is about pain, and I also think it’s about trying to remember and understand pain, which is such a tricky thing. Pain is something we can forget almost instantaneously when it’s over, but to be in the throes of pain does something very specific to time and the passing of time. I would have a hard time articulating what that thing is exactly, and that’s partly why I wrote the play.”
Sofi’s unseen husband Pete has just discovered that she has committed a kind-of-adultery with a guy at work; and we hear Sofi make two very different calls during the play; one a sex-related call to that colleague, and the other to her husband.
When she makes these calls, indeed as time passes throughout the play, another central character is introduced—Isabella Byrd’s starkly effective lighting, which in sudden bursts, signaled by Sofi turning to us to inform us plainly about the transitions of time, can switch from the brightness of daytime to the dark gloam of night, where the only illumination on stage comes from the characters’ cell phones.
It is at night that Sofi stretches, agonizes, throws herself around on and off chairs as she confronts her various demons. “My body is monstrous…You married a monster,” she says in a message to Pete in one of these tortured night sequences.
And then there is Nelson, and what he and Sofi may or may not do. Personally, just as some of the glances of the female characters seem to convey when he appears, this audience member would have preferred the play to feature the women solely. Yes, Nelson has a dramatic point of being there, but it feels unnecessarily obvious and intrusive, given the wonderful performances, intriguing richness, and chemistry of the group of women we want to hear more from—they know pain for good and bad, humorously and all too seriously. (Stand by to be especially enlightened on sphincters.)
The presence of Sofi and Nelson’s will-they-won’t-they element is the most conventional thing about the play. It is beautifully written, of course—he has colon cancer, a photograph of which she desires as some kind of weird keepsake. “That’s my recto-sigmoid junction,” he explains, as he scrolls through the images he has on his phone.
One of the show’s best laugh-out-loud moments is when Sofi imagines the kind of sex they could have, and he is put off by the extremely long and involved blow job she sees as part of it. “Seven hours sounds like too long, man. I’m gonna go take a nap,” he says.
The unfunny thing is that the source of Sofi’s pain means sex itself is painful, hence the fantasy of Nelson fucking it away. She would love to have sex with him, Sofi says, but can’t. He replies, reasonably, then when people really want to do things, they do. In another play, that would be the punchline and meaningful end to the exchange, but it is Sofi who has the hushed last word. “Not me,” she says.
Infinite Life is a play of profundities, absurdities, and ideas, running the gamut of shooting the breeze, meandering backchat, and going esoterically deep. A story about a pirate encompasses themes of rape, nature, nurture, compassion, and selfhood. Elaine’s cat is having radioactive treatment for its thyroid. As the other characters leave or drift away, Eileen and Sofi are left, with the former revealing she has Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. Pain is a lie, she says. Resisting pain is necessary to resist that which isn’t true. “The only true thing is the Infinite Idea, forever repeating itself.”
“Sometimes I think I’m being punished for betraying him, but other times I think I’m being punished for not betraying him more completely,” says Sofi of how she feels her pain connects to the state of her marriage to Pete.
But, you think, disease and bodily malfunctions do cause pain; nerve endings and neurology are real. Again, what are these people fasting for? How does it help in conjunction with their other medical treatment? But in this play, pain is the true central character, stretching into the far distance far off the bounds of the text, and the constant the characters must try to make sense of in the absence of being able to vanquish it completely.
The play is engrossing, even if some of its strands feel not fully realized. It does not matter, such is the powerful experience of watching Baker and her characters at work. What feels unfinished is in line with the necessarily never-complete, in-process fabric of the play and its characters. At the end, the younger Sofi and older Eileen engage in a deeper form of communion and salving of each other’s pain. Here, for all the philosophizing of the play, for all those telling and loaded silences, physical touch is the key to something positive and easing. When Sofi says she could have been helping Eileen by doing what she does for days now, it almost feels like a release and revelation, a thing staring at Sofi and us all the way along. A laying on of hands, the power of touch—for all its ethereal complexity, Infinite Life ultimately answers its own riddle of pain with a moving and powerful simplicity.