Annie Baker recently told The New York Times that she sees herself neither as an entertainer or provocateur, and one’s reaction to her newest play, “Infinite Life,” now at the Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theatre under James Macdonald’s sturdy direction, may be a barometer indicating whether you agree with her self-assessment.
A work that is ultimately as enigmatic as its title, this tale of six people – five women and one man – who have come to (not to come) some sort of cleansing clinic in northern California to heal their bodies and souls admittedly has some moments of mirth (many emanating from the mouth of the Queen of wry, Kristine Nielsen). But it also has long stretches of silence (a Baker trademark), weirdly banal chitchat, and ridiculously in-depth descriptions of these visitor’s ailments all crammed into its 110 minutes that frankly sometimes seem much longer. To quote the seminal rock band, The Talking Heads, “you may ask yourself, what I am doing here.”
More to the point, what is Baker trying to do here? I admit I am not completely sure, but I believe she is exploring how we, individually and collectively, deal with pain of the body and pain of the soul. Baker is not just demonstrating that misery loves company (which perhaps it does) but positing that misery also leads to real human connection.
Baker is also commenting on how people of different genders and generations tackle the subject of pain, philosophically and practically. For example, the kindly, prudish 70-something Eileen (the always delightful Marylouise Burke) doesn’t even reveal her illness until the play’s end, while the matter-of-fact Yvette (the excellent Mia Katigbak) – a decade younger than Eileen -- is more than willing to recount all her former and present ailments – and there are many -- in great detail, leaving nothing to the imagination.
The clearest contrast, however, can be seen in Baker’s portraits of the clinic’s youngest visitors. 47-year-old Sofi (a too-whiny Christina Kirk) has clearly let her ailment – which involves unbearable pain after sex and bladder issues – redefine her life. While she has not lost her job (as the head of the Protein Strategy team at a meal kit delivery service), the desperate, often potty-mouthed Sofi has been abandoned both by her husband and her office mate with whom she’s been having a verbal affair of sorts. And since she has no children – it’s not entirely clear if it’s by choice -- she rightly feels that she may have no choice but to rely on herself for the foreseeable future. We feel her pain and her terror, but Kirk’s affect sometimes makes it hard for us to sympathize completely with Sofi.
In any case, what Sofi really wants, just for a few hours, is sex with Nelson (a very fine Pete Simpson), who walks around the clinic’s pool bare-chested and wearing yoga pants that reveal his muscular legs. He has pictures of his last colonoscopy, which show the recurrence of his cancer, on his cell phone and shares them easily with Sofi, just as he does the information that he is in an open marriage (provided he calls his wife before he hooks up with someone.) Unlike some of the women, Nelson has no shame about how he lives his life, or how life has treated him, while Sofi believes deep-down that her illness – and her entire life -- is her fault.
I suspect many people will forget – or try to forget – this often-unpleasant play the second they re-emerge on 20th Street. For others, it will linger in the mind for hours, days, weeks or as infinite an amount of time we spend on Earth.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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