Books & the Arts / October 31, 2023

Unhappy Together

Annie Baker’s Infinite Life.

The Small Gestures and Big Questions of Annie Baker’s Plays

In Infinite Life, Baker asks: How do you reach out to others when everyone ultimately suffers alone?

Vikram Murthi
A scene from “Infinite Life.”

A scene from Infinite Life.

(Ahron R. Foster)

Annie Baker’s new play, Infinite Life, is about pain—experiencing it, communicating it, and living with it. It also seeks to dramatize how chronic pain fractures the connection between a person’s body and mind, how it completely scrambles one’s sense of self. The play, which ran from August 18 through October 15 at the Linda Gross Theater in New York, opens on a series of chaise longues, the kind you’d find encircling a hotel pool. Most of these are arranged in a line facing the proscenium, so that the audience and the cast sit in direct confrontation. The characters—five women and one man, who range in age from their 40s to their 70s—are patients at a clinic in Northern California that specializes in chronic pain management. They’re there for different reasons (cancer, vertigo, Lyme disease), but they’re all receiving the same treatment: a days-long fast, during which they subsist on water or juice. As the play unfolds, we watch the cast mostly lying around and convalescing during the day, passing the time by napping or reading or engaging in intermittent conversation, before retiring to their off-stage bedrooms, where they struggle alone.

Sofi (Christina Kirk) is the youngest, most inexperienced patient, and she serves as both our guide through chronic pain and our marker of time. She divides the scenes by dramatically announcing how many minutes or hours have passed; the stage lights brighten or dim to indicate day and night. During the day, Sofi speaks with the older patients about their families and the books they’re reading, only to spin out completely when she’s alone in the evening. We watch as, hungry and in agony, she calls her estranged husband’s voicemail, hungry and in agony, to leave anguished messages about how her body feels like the center of a blowtorch. Other times, she leaves explicit messages on a coworker’s voicemail without any expectation of their being returned.

“I’m normally a really healthy person,” Sofi remarks at one point, in the insistent tone of someone struggling with new circumstances. Kirk’s performance, alternating between mild-mannered and desperate, captures the frustration of living with an illness, possibly for the foreseeable future. Infinite Life takes place over a span of almost two weeks. During this period, Sofi tries to address the pain she feels in her bladder and pelvis; by the time she leaves the clinic, she feels exactly the same. Baker’s work has never been sentimental, which is certainly true here; her characters tend not to resolve their crises, even as they seek to break out of old patterns and find new forms of human connection. Infinite Life asks: How do you reach out to others when everyone ultimately suffers alone?

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Through the play’s dialogue, Baker depicts illness as a kind of language unto itself. It has its own grammar and vocabulary: the scientific names of diseases, different treatment regimens with varying degrees of success, personal histories chronicling overlapping maladies. Yvette (Mia Katigbak), Elaine (Brenda Pressley), and Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen)—who have either previously attended the clinic or are in the later stages of their fast—openly share their experiences and advice: It’s normal to throw up bile; just sip the juice, don’t gulp it, and you’ll eventually feel amazing; day two or three is the worst.

They also trade medical terms like currency and recount stories of their conditions with the casual calm of someone who’s related it countless times. In one monologue, Yvette discusses how a botched C-section led to years of pain that ultimately culminated in the surgical removal of her bladder, which she describes as a relief. Then doctors found a tumor in her breast, which miraculously shrank to nothing during her previous stay at the clinic. Now she’s back because her cancer has recurred.

Meanwhile, Eileen (Marylouise Burke), the oldest patient, offers a more enigmatic presence. Though she’s undoubtedly kind and curious, it’s suggested that her deeply religious sense of propriety keeps her at a certain distance from the others, especially when they engage in profane conversation. Her age and fragility also serve as something of a cautionary tale for them: It might go on like this forever, and faith can only explain so much. In one harrowing nighttime scene, Eileen describes a torturous flare-up during which she bemoans her inadequate treatment and lashes out at her fellow patients. She relates this outburst in the past tense even as she describes it in the present, which gives the impression that it happened to someone else a while ago.

Pain is paradoxical in Infinite Life: As the physical self becomes disconnected from an intensely negative feeling, like a severed limb lying across the room, the mind is left to constantly make sense of the emergency at hand. Baker specializes in the drama of identity crises; although this takes on an explicitly corporeal dimension in her latest work, it’s often an abstract, psychological condition in her other plays. The Aliens (2010) traces a rising college student’s fleeting friendship with two slackers in their early 30s who loiter outside a coffee shop. Her gothic-tinged John, from 2015, chronicles a collapsing romance in full view of an aging innkeeper in her bed-and-breakfast. Set in a mysterious writers’ room, The Antipodes (2017) examines the value of storytelling in a culture that fetishizes a good yarn but is hostile to hard truths. The Flick (2013), her best-known play, follows three employees of a run-down, single-screen movie theater. In each, Baker situates her audience in the belly of angst without offering an escape hatch. She luxuriates in pregnant silences and slight shifts in her characters’ body language; she subverts spectacle entirely and teases out the relationships between people and spaces—how we fill them or let them define us. The goal is to leave her audience marinating in an uncomfortable feeling.

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Like many other playwrights, Baker also employs prolonged action to develop her characters outside the confines of dialogue. What makes her technique unusual, though, is that she revels in moments of human behavior not often depicted onstage, as in this stage direction from The Aliens: “KJ notices the fallen recycling bin. He stops singing and walks over to it. He tries to right it. It takes a very long time, but he succeeds. He stares at it for a while, then lays his hand on top of it.” The pauses and silences in Baker’s plays exist to triangulate an evolving relationship between the actors, the audience, and the passage of time. Through this process, her sets acquire their own subjectivity, a silent force that influences how we engage with each cast member. In the case of Infinite Life, the disjunction between poolside lounging and the private chaos of chronic pain underscores how trapped the characters feel.

Baker carefully orchestrates conversations built around unrefined speech, making superficially mundane and aimless chitchat of paramount importance to her characters’ inner lives. It doesn’t merely amount to a preponderance of ellipses; it’s also the way the dialogue doubles back on itself to indicate a character trying to communicate an idea in progress. From The Antipodes: “She was kind of this—well she was like this sort of makeup-y like—she came from a lot of inherited wealth and my mom was like—she was a social worker and she and my dad were always just trying to make ends meet.” Characters often talk over one another in an attempt to be heard. They perform for each other but also struggle with that performance in real time.

Baker’s younger characters carry a certain poetic inelegance; the older ones speak in a much more direct and forthright manner. Infinite Life features much less hesitating speech than the rest of Baker’s plays, in no small part because the youngest, Sofi, is in her 40s. As a result, all the characters in the play describe their thoughts and emotions bluntly and clearly. Even when Sofi’s bladder drives her mad at night, this doesn’t render her incoherent; it just means that she’s only willing to confess her anguish under the cover of darkness. When she stumbles over confessing an attraction, she openly admits it instead of talking around the subject.

Explicit discussions of sex also abound in Baker’s plays. In Infinite Life, these take on a desperate quality. The cock in the clinic’s henhouse, Nelson (Pete Simpson), is a bland finance bro with colon cancer who speaks in clipped, candid sentences, but he also becomes Sofi’s confessor and object of desire. The two flirt by discussing their current relationships (he’s in an open marriage, while she’s separated) as well as their illnesses; Nelson’s blasé attitude about his cancer only heightens Sofi’s attraction to him, leading her to view—and eventually ask for—X-ray photos of his colonoscopy.

Director James Macdonald amplifies the sexual tension between the two by placing Sofi and Nelson across the stage from each other during these scenes; they only occasionally look each other in the eye. Nelson eventually broaches the possibility of sex, but Sofi declines: Bladder pain has forced her to be selective about when to endure torment in the service of pleasure. (“I used to come all the time,” she remarks sadly. “That was like my speciality.”) This new abnegation renders Sofi’s carnal desire hazardous, even though touch becomes the most vital form of communication for her. Words might be a makeshift refuge for physical expression, but for Sofi they ultimately highlight the perpetual separation between body and mind that her condition produces. The body becomes an unfamiliar vessel when gratification and involuntary pain are entangled.

In a 2015 interview with Marc Maron, Baker described what she always hopes to accomplish in her work: “The thing you’re moving towards is that you could write about something very small, like someone sweeping up popcorn or a couple in a bed-and-breakfast, and that somehow, if you do it the right way, it achieves some larger spiritual meaning that you actually can’t articulate or else it wouldn’t have that resonant meaning.” When I saw The Flick, I was stunned by the way it seemed to be in search of elusive truths about the ways people live today, but without ever straining for a profound point. Everything in the production felt intertwined: The ordinariness of the dialogue could not be extricated from the characters’ mundane actions (sweeping, mopping, shuffling) or the single-set location in which they were confined. A knotty map of race and class conflicts slowly unfolded, without the need for the usual signposts and proselytizing. The play’s connection to “dying” arts—celluloid film, the theater—embraced the reality of their waning cultural purchase without succumbing to pessimism. Baker weaved together multiple ideas percolating in contemporary life, depicting them through the accumulation of small details and without offering any neat takeaways.

A similar, barely perceptible thread emerges in Infinite Life about finding meaning in suffering. Most of the patients at the clinic have integrated their condition into their identity. But Sofi recoils at that idea, blaming herself for her pain and believing that it might be the product of bad karma, either for emotionally betraying her husband or for not betraying him “more completely.” People will reach for any irrational reason to explain their unlucky lot. But what if suffering is not an “error” that must be corrected or resisted because—per Eileen and her Christian Science beliefs—it’s something that isn’t true? What remains then is horror without a source.

Early in the play, Sofi explains to her husband on the phone that the view from her chaise longue is of the parking lot behind a bakery; she wonders where the “normal people” are before concluding that they’re probably buying bread. We, the audience, are these ostensibly normal, bread-buying people watching the sick deal with their pain and hunger. Though Infinite Life barely mentions politics, it takes place in May 2019, less than a year before illness would become the subject of global headlines. By 2023, the gap between the healthy and the ailing would contract. Many of us would be searching for some cause for our agony.

Infinite Life begins and ends with a conversation between Sofi and Eileen. In the beginning, they sit far apart and share awkward small talk, but by the end, they are much closer, and their conversation moves from religion and sex to the mind’s ability to transcend the body. The two eventually exchange small gestures (a touch of the hair, a raising of the feet) designed to temporarily relieve the other’s pain. Yet the actors render these gentle actions like an act of communion, one that contains a greater spiritual meaning about how everyone suffers alone together.

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Vikram Murthi

Vikram Murthi is a Brooklyn-based critic and a contributing writer to The Nation. He also edits Downtime Magazine, and his freelance work has appeared in Filmmaker MagazineReverse ShotCriterionVulture, and sundry other publications.

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