Review: Annie Baker’s ‘Infinite Life’ Turns Chronic Pain Into Complex Pleasure

In this primal, honest drama strangers gather at a northern California clinic, grow closer, then disperse after grazing past each other’s lives.

Marylouise Burke as Eileen (l) and Christina Kirk as Sofi in Infinite Life. Ahron R. Foster

Infinite Life | 1hr 45mins. No intermission. | Atlantic Theater Company | 330 West 20th Street | 646-328-9579

Empathy dictates we should feel another’s pain, as a certain politician once drawled. Yet the instinctual response is more often sympathy, the gesture of concern that pulls away even as it hugs. Someone mentions their cancer; an inner voice blurts, how awful for you and glad it’s not me. Sharing medical news with a friend you may silently scoff, they don’t understand. In Annie Baker’s Infinite Life, staged with startling clarity and grace at Atlantic Theater Company, clients at a fasting clinic compare their respective disorders or boast of the unique intensity of their suffering. Pain, the play suggests, immures us from communion, not to mention cure.

An astonishing recorder of human frailty, Baker uses one of those narratives in which strangers gather at a spa or retreat, grow closer, then disperse after grazing past each other’s lives. It’s a handy formula for generating exposition and avoiding forced closure. Our main point of focus is Sofi (Christina Kirk), a 47-year-old woman who has arrived at the northern California clinic to treat her agonizing bladder condition. The single set (by design trio dots) is a concrete backyard facing the parking lot of a bakery from which the smell of bread wafts cruelly over those subsisting on water or juice. Four other women (and a man) drift in and out, settling on lounge chairs, sipping, sleeping, or killing time with chitchat. 

Christina Kirk as Sofi in Infinite Life. Ahron R. Foster

Those who have seen and admired Baker’s previous work (The Flick, John) will be prepared for the abundant pauses that aerate sparse dialogue and give scenes the heft of lived experience and social awkwardness. Conducted with a finely tuned ear by director James Macdonald, you could say these long silences both bring subtext to the surface and release us from the need to know. Is someone not answering because they don’t know how to reply, or literally don’t understand what’s been said? Pinter played this estrangement game 60-plus years ago, but Baker uses it less to signal power shifts in a room and more to excavate a character’s longing, their difficulty articulating a seething tangle of feelings. A nighttime scene between Sofi and frequently shirtless fintech bro Nelson (Pete Simpson) is both cringe and incredibly sexy, as Nelson shows pics of his cancer-ridden colon. “Yeah it’s not like the sexy kind of pain,” he says brusquely, which only turns Sofi on more.

“Sexy pain” is one concept threaded through the week or so Sofi stays at the clinic. Among the meaty ideas Baker raises, like toxic food and moral relativity, she links broken bodies to erotic discontent. “You know what I think is making everyone sick?” asks gossipy Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen). “Bad sex.” Sofi fears that ulcers on her bladder, which make urination feel “like I’m peeing razors,” are the result of accepting a sexually bland marriage. She tells grandmotherly Christian Scientist Eileen (Marylouise Burke) that perhaps Nelson could “fuck the pain” out of her. The dirty talk and horny vibe (Sofi has a contactless affair with a man that involves graphic voicemails) is not just for laughs; Sofi can only live vicariously since actual sex means agony. Disease has banished the patients from their bodies; “normal” life has been replaced by the endless purgatorial loop of scans, relapses and fasting plans by the unseen Erkin.

Kristine Nielsen as Ginnie, Brenda Pressley as Elaine, Marylouise Burke as Eileen, and Mia Katigbak as Yvette (from left) in Infinite Life. Ahron R. Foster

At 105 minutes with no intermission, scenes that unfold in crepuscular dimness that snaps abruptly to bright daylight (scrupulously modulated by Isabella Byrd) and a script full, of course, of squirm-inducing fleshly woe, Infinite Life may trigger theatergoers of delicate sensibilities—in addition to the pause-averse. (I heard at least one mid-show exit the night I attended.) But lean in and surrender to the rhythm and you’ll find the most satisfying new work since last season’s Downstate, with an obscenely gifted cast. Mia Katigbak’s Yvette, prim and skeptical, catalogs an absurdly lengthy medical history that would lift Job’s spirits. As the reserved Elaine, beautifully poised Brenda Pressley provides glimpses into a life of hard-won normalcy under the shadow of Lyme disease. Burke’s forever-girlish vibe and Nielsen’s impish mugging—always delightful but elsewhere laid on thick—are dialed down to serve the understated vibe. Simpson is dryly hilarious as an inscrutable alpha, his macho terseness both dignified and sad. 

Binding them all is a disarmingly natural, transparent, and gutsy performance by Kirk—longtime downtown ingénue, avatar for a certain strain of dreamy-detached Gen X theater. Ever since Kirk dazzled audiences more than 20 years ago in Melissa James Gibson’s urban slacker comedy [sic], Kirk has gone on (in too few subsequent gigs) to be the bright, tremulous center of interest. As Sofi, she brings her trademark smarts and sarcasm, the quirky pluck now suffused in hellish pricks that torture her organs and mind, a woman losing marriage, health, and sanity (“Maybe I am a monster. My body is monstrous. My mind is monstrous. . .”). Pain may be trapped in the sufferer’s body, but great acting in such primal, honest drama can soothe a collective hurt. 

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Review: Annie Baker’s ‘Infinite Life’ Turns Chronic Pain Into Complex Pleasure