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Infinite Life

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 12, 2023

Christina Kirk and Marylouise Burke
Photo by Ahron R. Foster
Playwright Annie Baker is the ultimate eavesdropper, a seeming fly on the wall, able to capture with meticulousness the voices of ordinary people, examine them under a microscope, and distill them to the quintessential. In her plays, the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur "genius grant" winner's characters come to life in ways that are tethered strongly to the settings and situations in which they find themselves. In Circle Mirror Transformation, for instance, the play emerges out of the context of an acting class at a local community center. In The Aliens, the story unfolds in the backyard of a coffee house. In The Flick, it's a run-down movie theater. These are static environments, self-contained worlds in which circumstances rather than plot turns dictate the unfolding of the play. True to the form of which Baker is a past master, we've now got her latest work, Infinite Life, opening tonight at the Atlantic Theater Company's Linda Gross Theater.

Infinite Life is, in many ways, 100% of what we have come to expect of Baker, spare of language and strong on complexity. The production itself is blessed with a glorious cast and precise directing by James Macdonald, who has worked with the playwright before and who also has helmed productions by other contemporary writers of challenging works, including Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane, David Mamet, and Sam Shepard. These are reasons enough for admirers of Baker's work to attend, even if the play does feel surprisingly unfinished in its construction, with even less of a story arc than usual and a long meandering stretch toward the end of the intermissionless hour and forty-five minute ride.

The setting is a health clinic in Northern California, where we meet five women and, later, one man who have come to participate in a supervised fast, one they hope will cleanse them of the unrelenting physical pain that has brought them there. We meet the women as they gather on a patio with their water bottles and take their places on lounge chairs as they settle in to rest or read or make brief conversation. Each of them is suffering from one or more serious ailments that has been wreaking havoc on their bodies. Don't go looking for metaphors here; their pain is physical, and it is individualized in its specificity and intensity from person to person.

But despite some pretty graphic descriptions, Infinite Life is not a play about self-pity or kvetching or one-upmanship about whose pain is worst. The underlying story is one of bravery, hope against hope, and empathy, epitomized by the little things the women do to be supportive of one another, especially, it would seem, among women of a certain age. (Four are in their 60s or 70s, with only one of them younger, in her 40s.) They share, mostly matter-of-factly, what it is that has brought them to the clinic. They tell little stories about their lives. They bolster and do little favors for one another. And surprisingly, they are able to find elements of often quite funny humor in their situations. In and of themselves, their bits of truncated conversation are deeply revealing of a strength of character that pervades.

The older women are portrayed by Mia Katigbak as Yvette, a droll Kristine Nielsen as Ginnie, Brenda Pressley as Elaine, and an utterly perfect Marylouise Burke as Eileen, a Christian Scientist who is questioning her faith in the wake of her own suffering. The youngest among them is Sofi (a splendid Christina Kirk), who seeks distraction in reading a copy of George Eliot's "Daniel Deronda" and in engaging in sexual fantasies, some of which she shares with her companions and with us. Rounding out the characters is the play's only male, Nelson (Pete Simpson), also in his 40s and also reeling from a painful ailment. Which doesn't preclude him from displaying dickish male behavior, all the more to highlight the powerful humanity of the women, even if they are decidedly curious about Nelson's presence.

Infinite Life has much to say about the ideas it explores, and it does so with laser-sharp exactitude. But, with the exception of Christina Kirk's Sofi and Marylouise Burke's Eileen, we don't get much of a sense of the slate of characters as individuals. And that's a shame, because they are all potentially intriguing. Yvette, Ginnie, and Elaine, and even Nelson all deserve greater attention before they disappear from the scene and, quickly enough, from our memory of them. Once they are out of the picture, Baker gives us a final long stretch in which Sofi and Eileen are essentially biding time and filling it with random conversation of the sort friends might have as a stalling tactic when reluctant to part from one another, while we, metaphorically speaking, are looking at our watches and thinking about dinner. Baker has never shied away from writing plays that run over three hours in length, but, despite its dragged-out ending, this one seems to cry out for more.

Infinite Life
Through October 8, 2023
Atlantic Theater Company
Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th St. New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: