Shortly before I attended Annie Baker’s new play about a group of mostly older women spending their vacations at a pain clinic in Northern California, I saw a new musical about a group of young adults in a psych ward. I faulted that musical for spelling everything out, offering little in the way of subtext or subtlety. By contrast, almost nothing is spelled out in “Infinite Life”; there is little in the play except subtext and subtlety. So, is this what I wanted; is it better?
Yes and no.
As she has demonstrated from her very first Off-Broadway play back in 2009, “Circle Mirror Transformation,“ Annie Baker is skilled in suggesting that there is something extraordinary beneath the surface of everyday events in the lives of ordinary people. Her plays, long and slow with many moments of silence, have always required patience, but we’re often rewarded for our attention. The New York productions of Annie Baker’s plays have served as showcases for wonderfully talented casts, cluing us into what’s happening – emotionally, psychologically, even thematically — with the smallest and most precise of gestures and expressions. Those rewards felt fewer this time around. For one, the cast is, as usual, wonderful, but many are underutilized,
The six characters in “Infinite Life” do little more than sit and rest and chat on chaise lounges in a patio carved out of the parking lot of what was once a roadside motel two hours north of San Francisco. They are all fasting, in hopes of conquering the chronic conditions each has that cause great and continuous pain. Little by little, we learn that the pain has in many ways taken over their lives. Slowly, the play implies a tension between life’s infinite longings and the limitations of the body – and, eventually, the intricate and eerie connections between pain and sex.
But the operative words here are: slowly, little by little, implies, eventually.
There are only two characters who feel fleshed out. The others seem largely to serve a function. Yvette (Mia Katigbak), for example, is the first to introduce sex into the conversation. Yvette tells the other women that her cousin narrates pornographic texts for the blind. She is also the first to talk, in graphic terms and at length, about her multiple conditions – and how the “water fasting clinic” they are in worked a miracle. That was the first time around; she’s returned to it now years later, because “the cancer is back.”
Eileen, the oldest of the women, has been married for nearly fifty years, lives in Wichita, Kansas, and makes clear to the other woman that she’s religious because she disapproves of any cursing, and she gets up and actually leaves when the conversation turns racy
The slow, tentative way that Marylouise Burke as Eileen walks to and from her chair, as if a marionette held up by strings, unconvinced that the ground will be firm, feels like something of a metaphor for all of the characters’ relationship with their bodies because of their chronic conditions. Eileen turns out at the end to be a more complicated character than she at first appears – which is why I count her as one of the two substantive characters.
The other, more obvious, is Sofi (Christina Kirk), who at 47 is by far the youngest of the women. She is the first character we see, she is the one who announces the passage of time “twenty minutes later….11 minutes later….twenty-five hours later” etc.
She makes phone calls throughout the play, in which she is clearly leaving messages rather than having conversations, which are largely sob-filled pleadings but on occasion unrequited phone sex – the first to, we eventually learn, her estranged husband, the second to a second man.
About halfway through the play, a shirtless man wanders into the parking lot patio, and sprawls on one of the chaise lounges. All the women are startled. But Ginnie (the great Kristine Nielsen) gives him a look that makes me glad NIelsen is in this play, and sorry she doesn’t get more to do.
In any case, to the extent there is dramatic tension in “Infinite Life,” it is between Nelson (Pete Simpson) and Sofi – although nobody ends up satisfied.
Once “Infinite Life” is published, I foresee it sparking any number of term papers. This is not just because of its timely sort-of-investigation into pain, which is an epidemic in America that provoked another epidemic – addiction to opioids. There are allusions woven throughout, just waiting for literary detection and analysis; Sofi, for example, is reading “Daniel Deronda,” by the nineteenth novelist George Elliot; she explains the plot and even reads a passage from the book. Ginnie cites a story from a book by the Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh to start a debate about the capacity of compassion and cruelty within each of us.
That exchange turns humorous, as do several others. But Annie Baker recently told an interviewer “I don’t think of myself as a provocateur, but I also don’t think of myself as an entertainer” — and the proof seems to be in this play, which is nearly two hours long without an intermission, the scenes sometimes conducted in near-dark and at mumble level. I at times found myself looking for Zen ways to stay engaged. I imagined myself there with the characters, resting on the chaise lounges, expecting longueurs, hoping to be free from pain.
Atlantic’s Linda Gross Theater through October 8
Running time: About 1 hour and 50 minutes without an intermission
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by James Macdonald
Sets by dots, costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, lighting by Isabella Byrd, sound by Bray Poor, makeup, hair and special effects by Alfreda “Fre” Howard, props by Noah Mease,
Cast: Marylouise Burke as Eileen, Mia Katigbak as Yvette, Christina Kirk as Sofi, Kristine Nielsen as Ginnie, Brenda Pressley as Elaine, Pete Simpson as Nelson.
Photographs by Ahron R. Foster