'Infinite Life' review — Annie Baker's magnificent existential drama is by turns hilarious and harrowing

Read our five-star review of the celebrated American playwright's latest Infinite Life, now in performances at the National Theatre to 13 January.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

“More life,” or so a character says yearningly in Angels in America, to which one can only chime in with “more Annie Baker” after seeing the American dramatist’s latest National Theatre entry, Infinite Life, which is by turns hilarious and harrowing. Baker has had three plays in this same auditorium before.

Transplanted to the Dorfman with its exemplary Off-Broadway cast of six intact (the work premiered with New York's Atlantic Theater Company in August), Infinite Life ranks amongst the very best from this ceaselessly mysterious playwright, whose debt to such English colleagues as Caryl Churchill is everywhere apparent.

Indeed, the play, with its mostly female sextet opining on all manner of topics whilst reclining on chaises longues, feels like a thematic twin to Churchill’s quietly apocalyptic 2016 one-act, Escaped Alone – that one consisting entirely of women who chatter away as they veer toward the abyss.

The assemblage in Infinite Life have been to the brink and back, it would seem, and are conjoined by an awareness of pain as an inescapably shared fact of life. “Look at us, we’re all sick,” notes Elaine (Brenda Pressley), who has joined the others at a northern California fasting clinic that by play’s end feels like a way station either to wellness or, very possibly, the grave.

New arrival Sofi (Christina Kirk) at 47 is the youngest of the lot and is patiently making her way through George Eliot’s novel Daniel Deronda, which, she says, is “very weird and great” – the assessment some may make of this very play.

Stalled on a particular sentence from the novel that she can’t quite parse, Sofi has plenty to say about the erotic pangs that consume her and about a husband from whom she is separated but cannot shake.

Immediately drawn to Nelson (Pete Simpson), the bare-chested male whose arrival sets pulses racing, Sofi speaks bluntly of having pain shagged out of her even as her own timekeeping starts to waver, individual alertness dulled by subsistence solely on liquids. Movingly, Sofi isn’t sure after a while just how long she’s actually spent at the clinic, and the patients’ gaits are seen collectively to falter as nourishment ebbs.

Infinite Life certainly isn’t for the squeamish. Nelson is happy to share photos stored on his phone of his colon in various stages of cancerous distress, and Yvette (the wonderful Mia Katigbak) is a walking catalogue of health-related woe – UTIs chief amongst them – which she enumerates in vivid detail. Get her going on the topic of anti-fungals, and there’s no stopping her.

Ginnie (Broadway veteran Kristine Nielsen) looks forward to retirement as a flight attendant whilst holding forth on, of all things, sphincters. Eileen (the priceless Marylouise Burke, seen previously here in Baker’s John) talks softly as befits her Christian Science and partners Sofi in a climactic gesture of compassion – empathy, the play suggests, our best (only?) defence against an unforgiving world.

It’s possible to take Infinite Life on purely satiric grounds: as a skilful anatomy of a heath-obsessed society conditioned toward hypochondria. And it’s certainly true that I left the auditorium wondering whether a visit to my GP was overdue.

But the play in its hyperrealist way – pauses are pushed to breaking point and beyond – also poses essential questions about how we manage to make it through the day (and, in Isabella Byrd's merciless lighting, the pitch-black night). Getting by in one piece, the play proposes, is a minor miracle.

Baker, like Churchill, relegates larger horrors offstage: we hear about a school shooting, rape and suicide, and of wildfires raging out of control. But the commingling on view before us is often very funny, and James Macdonald – a proven expert with the work of both dramatists – keeps this magnificent play light on its feet even as it careens headlong into darkness.

Infinite Life is at the National Theatre through 13 January.

Photo credit: Infinite Life (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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