Commentary: Annie Baker chases nexus of pain and desire in hypnotic observational odyssey, 'Infinite Life'

The plays of Annie Baker take up a question that preoccupied Anton Chekhov at the end of the 19th century. How much propulsive action must a play contain to hold an audience’s attention?

At issue is the relationship of plot to realism. In a theater dependent on exaggerated storylines — hairbreadth escapes, implausible coincidences and either conclusively happy or disastrous endings — how can the momentousness of ordinary life be captured?

In his four dramatic masterpieces, “The Seagull,” “Uncle Vanya,” “The Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard,” Chekhov defied to varying degrees the bullying demands of melodrama. He was testing how far the stage could rival the short story, his other main artistic outlet, as a medium of self-observation and subtle epiphany.

Epic things happen in Chekhov’s plays. Characters kill themselves and die in duels. Dreams of love are shattered. Family members tearfully return and wrenchingly depart. An estate with a beloved orchard is lost. But the plays take place between these shattering events, in the interstices of the drama, where time quietly registers its ultimate authorial presence.

Not much happens to the characters in Baker’s latest play, “Infinite Life,” which is having its world premiere off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in a co-production with Britain’s National Theatre. The five women and one late-arriving man are patients at a modest fasting clinic in Northern California for people suffering from chronic pain.

The characters lie outdoors in lounge chairs at a converted roadside motel. They move gingerly, conserving their strength and discreetly arranging themselves to limit their discomfort. Small talk breaks out to ease the tedium of the endless hungry hours. Medical histories are shared. The more we learn about their diseases, the more we discover about their identities.

Pain is a private matter. Elaine Scarry, in her classic literary-philosophical study of the subject, “The Body in Pain,” zeroes in on the inexpressible nature of physical torment, the way it can “destroy language” and thereby seal a person off from understanding. One of the more frightening aspects of pain, Scarry notes, is that what is “indisputably real to the sufferer” may be, when not accompanied by grave outward signs, “unreal to others.”

A play about pain is itself a kind of paradox. The stage is a public showcase, but how do you make visible what is experienced alone? As she did in her previous works, including the indelibly brilliant “Circle Mirror Transformation” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Flick,” Baker sets up a provisional community. The characters are relieved to be quickly understood by their fellow patients even as they scrupulously protect the privacy that their medical conditions have jeopardized.

Sofi (Christina Kirk), a 47-year-old woman from Los Angeles, is nearly a generation younger than the others, who are more experienced with the routine of this type of clinic. Her age makes her something of a curiosity, but conversation is tricky.

She is engrossed in George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda,” a novel so vast and branching that it’s nearly impossible for her to answer when someone inquires, “What’s it about?” More personal questions about her condition and marital status can seem like an intrusion. When Sofi eventually feels comfortable enough to talk about her harrowing bladder disorder and her estrangement from her husband, it becomes clear that she can either reveal nothing or everything. Anything in between only provokes a flurry of awkward questions.

The other women in the play are presented to us in the way of strangers who become known to us through shared circumstances. They disclose profoundly intimate details of their bodies, but our knowledge of their lives is elliptical.

Baker grants us only fleeting glimpses of the characters. She isn’t concerned with melding their individual stories into a master plot. “Infinite Life” is chasing after a thematic connection between pain and desire, both hard to quantify and contain and neither easy to talk about.

Eileen (played by the inestimable Marylouise Burke), is more prudish than the others. She goes to the “powder room” when the conversation turns to sex. In time, we learn that for most of her life she’s been a Christian Scientist and that she suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.

“It’s in my nerves,” she explains. “There’s not a cure, but apparently sometimes it goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not life-threatening.”

“Mine is kind of similar,” Sofi replies.

Eileen, who’s from Wichita, Kans., lived for a time in Los Angeles, when her teenage daughter wished to study with the best classical violin teacher in the country. The daughter eventually decided not to pursue her musical dream, allowing Eileen to leave a city that never felt like home.

She recalls that period of her life with some dismay: “We lived 15 minutes from downtown, but on some mornings it would take an hour and a half, and I remember thinking while we sat in the car: ‘This is a nightmare. I’m living in a nightmare.’”

“Yeah, the traffic can be hellish,” Sofi responds in the shrugging way of die-hard Angelenos.

Other characters include Elaine (Brenda Pressley), who avoids seltzer because of her osteoporosis and shares that she had to come up with a safe word to use when her husband would fly into one of his rages. Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen), a soon-to-be retired flight attendant with a friendly yet somewhat intrusive manner, finds distraction from her vertigo in the stories she baits others to tell.

Yvette (Mia Katigbak) provides perhaps the fullest medical history in a series of monologues so replete with pharmaceuticals that it becomes almost a new lyrical form. Her litany of woes traces the limits of science and the deficiencies of healthcare. Perhaps the most disturbing note is the chorus of silent understanding that greets her tale. She is alone in her suffering yet she is clearly not the only one.

The play unfolds in conversational exchanges. Sofi fast-forwards the action by indicating how much time has passed between one interaction and the next. (Isabella Byrd’s lighting, moving from sun to darkness and back again, helps illustrate the passage of time on a set by the design collective dots that creates a kind of Marriott limbo.) At one point, Yvette recounts a death-haunted dream that might have been hers or Elaine’s or Ginnie’s. The fluidity is characteristic of Baker, who refuses to let formal structure constrict her dramatic imagination.

Where is “Infinite Life” heading? The healthcare staff is offstage, so the play doesn’t seem to be building toward a conventional medical crisis. Besides, these women understand that their conditions don’t have cures. They are accustomed to living with pain. Restraint helps keep them sane.

Under James Macdonald’s gently disciplined direction, the actors give remarkably contained performances. Kirk’s Sofi sometimes caves into agony, but normally, she wears a smeared look of pain. Burke’s Eileen walks with a tentativeness that she does her best to mask. Nielsen’s Ginnie sits regally like a cat ready to pounce on any dangle of gossip. Katigbak’s Yvette happily reports that she’s “much much better,” though from what baseline is disturbing to consider. Pressley’s Elaine bears her suffering as though it were a familiar bundle she has no business complaining about.

The plot is catalyzed by the entrance of Nelson (Pete Simpson), a San Francisco-based tech finance guy whose colon cancer has returned. Shirtless, he struts like a rooster in a hen house, arraying himself on the lounge as though it were his personal yoga mat.

Like Sofi, Nelson is also in his 40s, making it impossible for them not to be aware of each other. But “Infinite Life” doesn’t veer into a love story. Baker is too honest for that. But the possibility of sex deepens this drama about the secret lives of bodies — how they malfunction in both sickness and in health.

“What’s your pain thing?” Nelson asks, as though inquiring about her profession. “Whenever I pee, it’s like I’m peeing razors,” Sofi says, before graphically detailing the effect on her genitals. Nelson shares with her some recent colonoscopy pics that detected his cancer. Sex at this point would almost be superfluous.

A moment of conflict occurs after Nelson makes a comment that privileges his pain over Sofi’s. The attitude is patriarchal and patronizing, and Sofi challenges how he could possibly know what she’s had to deal with.

A strange connection nevertheless emerges. Sofi has long fantasized that sex could relieve the misery of her body, but she knows herself too well to sustain this delusion. She asks Nelson to text her one of his disease photos to remember him. Before she leaves the clinic, a spontaneous gesture of kindness to alleviate Eileen’s unending pain will likely yield an even more powerful memory.

“Infinite Life” follows a line of Baker plays that invite an audience into a situation in which the characters themselves are having to learn the rules as they go along. A modern-day Chekhovian with a post-dramatic sensibility, the playwright refuses to let plot derail her pursuit of psychological and theatrical truth.

The dramatic outline grows fainter with each work, but the accuracy of behavioral observation and the quality of empathy seem only to deepen. How much further will Baker be able to proceed in this dramatic direction? “Infinite Life” suggests as far as she’s willing to go.

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