'Infinite Life' review — a superbly acted meditation on suffering
Read our four-star review of Infinite Life, the latest world-premiere play from Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker, off Broadway at the Linda Gross Theater.
“You look great,” Eileen cheerfully tells Sofi at the start of Annie Baker’s quietly engaging Infinite Life, now off Broadway in a co-production of the Atlantic Theater Company and the U.K.’s National Theatre.
Sofi is anything but great. She’s in physical agony, and the same goes for Eileen. The divide between how things look and the way things are is one takeaway of this group portrait of pain and its life-rattling reverberations.
The May 2019 setting is a clinic a couple hours north of San Francisco, where six people in their 40s and up have arrived from near and far. They’re here to fast, rest, and recuperate from various health woes that invaded their lives.
Over several days they trade banalities (“What are you reading?”) and who-knew factoids (“We also have tiny sphincters in our eyes”). They swap war stories, at times graphically, of how their bodies have betrayed them (“Whenever I pee, it’s like I’m peeing razors”). They ask questions (“Who are the happy normal people?” and “Are you all right, sweetheart?”) that defy easy answers and are surprisingly stirring in their directness.
That’s basically it, and it all happens on a relatively nondescript open-air patio featuring floral breeze blocks and a row of cushioned chaise lounges. At some point during the play’s unbroken 105 minutes, a sense of isolation sinks in. One might imagine those seats as life rafts – built for one. Suffering is singular and isolating, yet there’s plenty of it to go around.
In a less assured playwright’s hands, it all could make for some pretty dreary doings. Not so here. As in earlier works including Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation, which revealed her early on as a master miniaturist, and The Flick, which won her a Pulitzer Prize, Baker infuses this new work with signature humor, humanity, and feels-so-real dialogue.
Director James Macdonald assembled an ace ensemble. Sofi, played to perfection by Christina Kirk, is estranged from her husband and grappling with being “a monster.” Her “pain thing” has been unbearable for months. Sex is torture. “I have to make sure it's really worth the pain afterwards,” she says.
Kansas wife Eileen (Marylouise Burke, invaluable) is haunted by nerve pain that could last forever or, on the contrary, one day vanish. Elaine (Brenda Pressley), who’s from New Hampshire, is in the grip of chronic Lyme disease. Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), is a Californian whose body failed her, and Yvette (Mia Katigbak), from Michigan, is dealing with “bladder stuff” and a host of other harrowing issues.
The sorority of suffering is changed by the arrival of Nelson (Pete Simpson), who has a history of colon cancer. He strolls shirtless into the patio, sparking ogling that recalls the likes of Lucky Vanous, the hunk from the Diet Coke ad. Nelson adds carbonation, particularly for Sofi.
As always, Baker serves up a distinct slice of life and takes her time with it. One of the play’s clever conceits is its tinkering with time. Sofi serves as a sort of human clock, making announcements like “20 minutes later” to keep us all on the same page. You have to imagine what went on during the gap.
If Infinite Life doesn’t quite knit together into a fully satisfying whole, it’s always worthwhile to see what’s currently on the playwright’s mind. And it doesn’t hurt one bit when the acting is exceptional.
Photo credit: Kristine Nielsen, Brenda Pressley, Marylouise Burke, and Mia Katigbak in Infinite Life. (Photo by Ahron R. Foster)
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