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  • Jonathan Kalb

What Hurts

Annie Baker is back. After 6 years! There’s joy in that exclamation mark. Like most people reading this, I imagine, I’ve been intensely curious what this extraordinary playwright has been up to. Her last New York premiere was The Antipodes at Signature Theater in 2017, the year she won a MacArthur and 3 years after her Pulitzer Prize for The Flick. Then she gave birth to a daughter and wrote and directed a film called Janet Planet, which screens at the New York Film Festival next month. Clearly she’s been busy, but there was one decidedly odd moment in her recent theater hiatus. In 2021, Signature Theatre announced a new Baker play called On the Uses of Pain for Life as its splashy post-pandemic re-opening show, then almost immediately withdrew the play without explanation. Infinite Life, her new play at the Atlantic Theater, is set in a chronic pain clinic and is about the complications of pain in the lives of six patients there. Is this a revised version of that retracted play? The publicist didn’t respond when I asked.

Infinite Life will divide and provoke audiences as much as anything Baker has done before. As directed by James McDonald, it’s slow, moody, cunningly low-key, and very specifically and crucially subtle. Like so much else she’s done—The Flick, Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens—this work is bound to enthrall those with the patience and imagination to absorb it on its own stubbornly anti-spectacular terms, and just as likely to irritate others. Baker, like her heroes Chekhov and Beckett, simply won’t ingratiate herself to anyone. She “trusts” her audiences, she says, to let go of all the received uses and conventions of drama that hold no interest for her and tune in instead to her distinctive, quiet frequency. Some have, and will.

Almost two hours without intermission, Infinite Life takes place on the patio of a seedy former motel in northern California, with a row of plain chaise lounges arranged next to a dreary wall of decorative cinder blocks looking out onto a bakery parking lot. This clinic is an alt-medicine affair run by a guy called Erkin we never meet, who may or may not be a doctor, who supervises cleansing fasts for people suffering miscellaneous ailments. We do meet five women and then one man, who wander in and out to sun themselves, read, chat, take phone calls, avoid roommates, smoke weed, and more, and their desultory conversations explain just enough about their maladies and the clinic’s practices to make clear that neither is the point of the play. The play turns out to be about the various ways these people carry physical pain around as a basic condition of their angst-ridden lives, and by extension our lives. Their suffering is a somatic manifestation of the sick and desperate state of our world.

Baker is a master of teasing misdirection. Her habit is to lead us down paths that make us entertain obvious explanations and then pull the rug out, not with exciting surprises but rather subtle reveals that peel away the superficial veneers that made us guess wrong in the first place. In Infinite Life’s opening scene, for instance, Christina Kirk, playing 40-something Sofi, is off to the side reading Daniel Deronda when Marylouise Burke, playing 70-something Eileen, enters and just starts talking to her as if oblivious that she’s interrupting.

Eileen: I know a lot of Sophies.

Sofi: Really?

Eileen: My daughter has three different friends named Sophie.

Sofi: Well mine is with an F.

Eileen: An F?

Sofi: Like S-O-F-I instead of P-H-I-E.

Eileen: Ohhh.

Sofi: How old is your daughter?

Eileen: Forty-four.

Sofi: That’s a good age.

Eileen: You’re not forty-four.

Sofi: I’m forty-seven.

Eileen: No! . . . You look great! . . . Are you married?

On the page this exchange looks utterly unremarkable, little more than neutral exposition. Onstage, though, it becomes a hilarious dance of shifting messages from both women and the audience. Burke is a shrewd comedian, and she pauses before each line just long enough for Sofi to go back to her book, which gets big laughs. That makes us assume for a time that Eileen is a broad-comedy busybody, also a pious prude who avoids profanity and sex-talk, but the complexity of the performances soon disabuse us. Burke draws out “a l-o-o-o-t of,” “Oh-h-h-h,” and other lines into searching melodies, suggesting a breadth of soul and intelligent interest inconsistent with yuck-yuck comedy. We also notice that Sofi, though a tad defensive, isn’t really rebuffing her. In fact, she’s woozy from hunger, as is everyone in the play because they’re fasting, so she can’t concentrate on her book anyway. These women may well be very happy to meet one another. Or not! You can read the scene either way.

I suspect many people will find this sort of uncertainty in the play maddening. Baker has thrown five women together under circumstances relaxed enough for them to share intimate details about what’s wrong with them, yet has ensured that we can’t really tell whether meaningful connections will ever build up between them (with one exception near the end). About halfway through, a handsome hunk of a middle-aged man is tossed into the mix—Nelson, played by Pete Simpson, also suffering chronic pain—and his presence introduces a rather obvious new complication (will he couple with anyone?) that also turns out to be a dangling thread. The people in this play commiserate, confess, and advise one another constantly but they never really bond. Their chief focus is always inward on their pain and discomfort while purging toxins from their treacherous bodies.

Ginnie, played by Kristine Nielsen, is a pushy flight attendant about to retire who has “auto-immune thyroid stuff but mostly I’m here for my vertigo.” Nielsen has made a brilliant career of comic pushiness yet here that quality is just a fact, never the deciding factor in how she’s treated. All personalities here operate in a strangely equivocal environment where nothing anyone says seems to have much consequential effect. Elaine, played by Brenda Pressley, has chronic Lyme Disease—a famously mysterious, some say dubious, ailment—and Yvette, played by Mia Katigbek, has a such a raft of conditions that they take a good five minutes to describe (the worst is a cancer that has returned). Amid all their symptom updates, meanwhile, everyone also casually drops references to unsolvable and deeply worrisome problems in the larger world, like school shootings, agricultural pollution, water contamination, and more.

Infinite Life does have a protagonist. It’s Sofi, who is the youngest in the group and who periodically breaks the realistic fourth wall to narrate the play’s time breaks: e.g. “Twenty minutes later,” “Five hours later.” Sofi at first downplays her pain issues (“something wrong with my bladder”) but it’s soon clear that her case is very complicated and deeply sexual. We see her unable to orgasm when masturbating, for instance, and hear her talk dirty and desperately into the voicemail of a man who won’t call her back: “If you don’t forgive me I want to be torn apart by wild animals.” It seems she screwed up her marriage with an affair that was never even consummated, and is now awash in self-loathing. “I'm just like a really shitty person and instead of making me a better person being sick has made me even shittier.”

Baker allows a spark to flicker between Sofi and Nelson, but the expected therapeutic affair doesn’t materialize. Instead the play proceeds down another wholly unconventional path. The action closes with a gorgeous encounter between Sofi and Eileen that turns on several previously overlookable details about both women, now taking an utterly unlikely, impromptu stab at healing communion. The fantastically strange pose that ends the play—part Pietà, part cunnilingus, part PT stretch—is breathtakingly powerful.

There is so much else to admire in this tender and touching show. McDonald, for instance, ensures that no character is ever treated as gullible or foolish for experimenting with the clinic, and he also modulates the action’s tone and pace so that every small detail of speech, no matter how seemingly minor, gets respectful attention onstage and therefore from us. Isabella Byrd’s lighting is also extraordinarily evocative, morphing the patio into a remarkable range of moods—from crepuscular gloom to blazing mid-day radiance to smoggy, irresolute murk. The light changes feel both real and surreal, making the place resemble an otherworldly waystation or purgatory to which these people have been condemned, or have condemned themselves.

Infinite Life is no allegory or morality play about what particular forms of suffering mean. It seems to me rather a valiant effort to evoke what it feels like to be alive in a time when pain is so ubiquitous that it feels horribly, deadeningly drained of meaning. Sofi says near the end, "If pain doesn't mean anything then it's so fucking boring. . . I guess if it means anything at all then I don't know if I can bear it.“

Photos: Ahron R. Foster

Infinite Life By Annie Baker Atlantic Theater Company

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