For a certain segment of the American population – or, to be more specific, for that certain segment that is lucky enough to be familiar with the work of the playwright Annie Baker – she can do no wrong. Still young at 42, if not “emerging” now that she has a Pulitzer, MacArthur and Obie under her belt, Baker has been turning out disquietingly moving ensemble pieces populated by characters who live in ordinary pockets of New England and speak in dialogue that feels wholly undevised and quietly revelatory. The denizens of the Annie Baker milieu lurk comfortably enough in the margins, overgrown latchkey kids whose copious psychic scar tissue can be trusted to slowly reveal itself over the course of her productions. An impatient few might leave at intermission, but Baker is a masterful portrait artist in the tradition of the short story writer Lorrie Moore or the painter Alice Neel. She has a knack for seeing people’s weird innards and transmuting them into something transcendent.
Baker’s play The Flick concerned a handful of underachieving movie theater employees and searchers in a small town. Her Circle, Mirror, Transformation was an energetic knockout that focused on a band of actors rehearsing for a community center theater production. There were shades of Christopher Guest, but the meticulously orchestrated awkward rhythms and blurted-out revelations were indisputably from the mind of Annie Baker. Her latest play, Infinite Life, originally intended to premiere in 2021 but held because of pandemic, has finally opened at the Atlantic Theater Company, in a co-production with the National Theatre of London.
The concept is half a degree more glamorous than her previous works: five women are staying at a mysterious health retreat in northern California. While following punishing water and juice fasts, the guests have nothing to do except while away the time on a bank of lawn chairs. They’re dizzy and sleepless; they’re running on next to no calories and it’s hard for them to focus on their coloring books and paperback novels.
With the exception of Sofi (Christina Kirk), who is 47, the women are of retirement age. There’s the creaky-jointed Eileen (the magisterial Marylouise Burke) and the hypochondriacal Yvette (Mia Katigbak). There’s even a man, Nelson, who occasionally emerges in silk pants (Pete Simpson) and does not wish to share what he does for a living (this detail emerges at the end, and does not completely surprise).
More satisfying is the slow and assured tumble-out of the particular ailments that brought the quintet of women to this repurposed motel in northern California. Vertigo. Cancer. Chronic pain. Nerve pain. Bladder pain. The sudden disappearance of lunulae, the half moons on one’s nails. It’s a litany of maladies that tells its own story: the psychosomatic and more scientifically diagnosable, all inextricably bound up.
Wellness retreats lend themselves to over the top skewering of self-improvement culture – or make for glorious murder-mystery backdrops. Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel Nine Perfect Strangers and its miniseries spinoff, set at a health getaway, was an unabashed satire of the cult of wellness. The White Lotus took on the popularity of “healing” retreats too, with Tanya’s first-season trip geared around recovering from her mother’s death.
Baker’s portrayal of life at a getaway is refreshingly gauzy and dreamlike – which feels fitting for a destination where guests enter an almost hallucinatory headspace, and are all but sure to lose grasp of their senses of verve and humor. Patients lose sight of their real-world identities and measure their progress in units – the numbers of calories they have forsaken or the count of the days since they checked in. After enough time, though, they eventually lose track of everything, till they’re pinned in place, nothing but yearnings for dumplings and the sounds of traffic whooshing by.
Conversation at the retreat in Baker’s play touches on pesticides and puberty, Manuka honey and microwaves, paperback recommendations and pain itself. The women on the property are united by a desire to vanquish their suffering. Perhaps by wrapping up their discomfort in language and submitting to treatment meted out by the overseeing doctor (a man whose name is occasionally invoked and in a lesser playwright’s hands would surely enter the picture as a cult leader or love interest), the women can liberate themselves by starving and articulating away their pain.
Infinite Life is often mesmerizing and undeniably audacious. Usually, Baker’s pieces share similar contours: they start out in some seemingly random corner of the world and the pathos and poignancy slowly come bubbling up. Now she has inverted the equation and front-loaded a play with no less heavy a theme than female suffering. From there she works backwards to underscore the flat and funny undertones contained in her characters’ plights. In the age of Barbie and the trauma plot, Infinite Life is an undeniably important and timely work. But the levity and weirdness vibrate at a low frequency, and the Annie Baker seesaw feels treacherously out of whack.