Off-Broadway Review: INFINITE LIFE (Atlantic Theater Company and National Theatre at the Linda Gross)

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by Gregory Fletcher on September 13, 2023

in Theater-New York


Co-produced by Atlantic Theater Company and National Theatre, the one-hour and 45-minute production (no intermission) is Annie Baker’s best play to date. At least from my past three experiences of the admired Circle Mirror Transformation, The Flick, and John.

The play is set two hours north of San Francisco. The set design by dots consists of seven outdoor chaise lounges, five of which face forward, and in front of a peach-colored stucco wall is a five-foot breeze-through divider you’d typically find surrounding a hotel pool. As the characters enter, walking across the decorative brick flooring, they’re not here to swim, but rather to fast at this medically supervised pain management facility.

The first client we meet is Sofi, played by the brave and profound Christina Kirk. It’s her first day and she’s hungry. An older patient assures her the hunger pains will disappear, but with a clearer head comes a challenge of focus. (Followed by vomiting of bile, which ultimately will be a good thing.)

At the end of scene one, Sofi looks to the audience and announces, “20 minutes later,” and scene two begins. I’m instantly impressed with Ms. Baker’s growth as a playwright, because back in the day she would’ve made us sit through those 20 minutes.

Marylouise Burke (Eileen) and Kristine Nielsen (Ginnie) also give me cause for relief and admiration. I’ve adored and enjoyed them both in quirky plays by Christopher Durang and David Lindsay-Abaire during which they mug with their signature acting-isms, causing me to howl with laughter. But cast in an Annie Baker play? No worries—from the moment the two enter the stage, they are as truthful and honest as any naturalistic play could possibly expect. And they give us plenty of laughs too, but not one is pushed, milked, or mugged. Along with the rest of the cast (Brenda Pressley, Mia Katigbak, and Pete Simpson), this may be the strongest acting ensemble currently playing in New York. Anyone studying acting should see this production.

Isabella Byrd’s lighting jump-cuts with the scenes as the play covers around 14 days. With a morning look, an afternoon look, an evening look, and a nighttime look, her lights flip from one to another as if a light switch bumps with Sofi’s continued narrations: “5 hours later,” “12 hours later,” “the next morning,” “later that night,” “22 hours later,” etc. In the last third of the play, our eyes have been perfectly trained with the different times of day, and the narration is dropped, leaving the lights to tell us all we need to know.

No one does pauses like Annie Baker, not even Harold Pinter, perhaps the founder of the stage pause himself. But here, the silences are about trying to connect in order to withstand and survive their physical pain. The six characters are hoping for a healing journey, and, as they endure either the water or juice fast, they connect with each other with small talk, though the subtext is anything but small. If we have to listen to their medically specific ailing battles with graphic details, their phone calls, and however they choose to pass the time—so be it. We stick with them, rooting for them, because we see how much they’re hurting, and we want them to survive this challenging time.

Despite the severity of each medical case, there are laughs—not for the characters, but in the perfect direction by James Macdonald, we’re given many moments to release our pent-up sadness and frustration to all that we’ve witnessed, releasing thanks for whatever good health we have.

The last scene ends with the same two characters that began the play. Notice how the morning sunshine slowly rises for the first time in the play, and Bray Poor’s sound design is refreshingly alive with a variety of birds, singing for the new day. We were all strangers in the beginning, and at the end connections have been made.

photos by Ahron R. Foster

Infinite Life
Atlantic Theater Company and National Theatre
Linda Gross Theater, 336 W. 20th Street
Tues, Thurs & Sun at 7; Wed, Fri & Sat at 8pm, Sat & Sun at 2
Wed matinee at 2pm (9/20, 9/27); dark Sun at 7 (9/24, 10/1, 10/8)
ends on October 8, 2023
for tickets (beginning at $85), call 646.452.2220 or visit Atlantic

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