A woman collapsed in a chaise longue on a brick and breeze-block patio is trying to read George Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda.” Over several days, various acquaintances also taking the sun will ask her what the book is about, a question she finds hard to answer as she keeps getting stuck on page 152. Still, she calls the novel “very weird and great.”
“If I’m not reading it all the time it seems really boring,” she says, “but once I’m into it it’s like the most entertaining thing in the world.”
This might be Annie Baker’s mission statement, and, sure enough, her latest play, “Infinite Life,” which opened on Tuesday at the Atlantic Theater Company, is very weird and great. Like “The Flick,” “The Aliens,” “John” and other previous work, it peeps at the greatest mysteries of life — in this case principally pain and desire, and what they have in common — through the tiny, seemingly inconsequential windows of banal human behavior.
Certainly, watching Sofi (Christina Kirk) try to plow through Eliot is no confetti cannon. Nor could you say that the four other women (and eventually one man) who show up on the patio do anything exceedingly dramatic by ordinary standards. You will be asked, for instance, to watch them sleep.
Books of various sorts are also prominent. Yvette (Mia Katigbak) reads a memoir about a woman with Lyme disease who starts a white-water rafting company. Ginnie (Kristine Nielsen) ponders an existential question proposed in her paperback by the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Elaine (Brenda Pressley) works at a coloring book. Eileen (Marylouise Burke) is in too much discomfort to do her own reading but asks the others about theirs.
Buried in books or not, they are all looking for answers. The patio adjoins a clinic in a former motel in Northern California run by a Godot-like guru we never meet. This savior figure prescribes fasts — just water or green juice for as long as several weeks — to clear the toxins he says are the cause of this group’s various cancers, infections, autoimmune disorders, “thyroid stuff” and vertigo. Enervated by the treatments as much as by the extreme pain of their illnesses, his patients spend their days and nights in a kind of stop-and-go stupor, which is frequently, unlike the Eliot, hilarious.
We get to know these women deeply over the course of 105 minutes. Ginnie is bossy about other people’s behavior and Yvette is a know-it-all about diseases, having had so many. (Baker gives her what amounts to an organ recital of maladies and medications, including a hymn to the “zoles”: “clotrimazole and econazole and fluconazole and ketoconazole and itraconazole and voriconazole.”) Elaine is very certain of everything she’s very certain of. Eileen, the eldest, is unfailingly kind but prim, especially when it comes to language.
That’s a problem for her because the language becomes explicit as the play gradually reveals, beneath its accumulation of brilliantly observed details, a focus on varieties of desire. Yvette tells a story about a cousin who describes porn movies for the blind. (“In person?” Sofi asks.) The arrival of a shirtless and, at first, nearly wordless man (Pete Simpson) hilariously raises the temperature, as if a rooster has broken into what you suddenly realize is a henhouse. And in a series of cellphone messages we overhear Sofi leaving, we learn how pleasure and pain have begun to merge disastrously for her.
Those messages — some to her husband, from whom she is separated — seem like a slight misstep; in a play that otherwise avoids exposition like a bad smell (we otherwise know only what the women tell one another) they are too on the nose. Still, they serve a purpose, besides being harrowing, in that they propel the play into its final third, in which the discussion of desire gives way to an opportunity to enact it. But if you think you see where that’s going, you will be both right and wrong; Baker’s structures are so strong and yet open that, within them, anything or its opposite may happen at any moment.
Maintaining that tension between plot and anti-plot, while using it to deepen our engagement in a story that seems random but isn’t, requires the most exquisite directorial care. “Infinite Life” (a co-production with Britain’s National Theater) gets that and more from James Macdonald, who has notably staged plays by Baker in London and by the British playwright Caryl Churchill here in New York. Indeed, “Infinite Life” most closely reminded me of Churchill’s great “Escaped Alone,” in which four women sit in a garden chatting into the apocalypse.
But Macdonald understands that Baker’s practice is not the same as Churchill’s. The women here (if not the man) are fully, almost floridly conceived, not just elements slotted into a formal conceit. Baker’s is a rich minimalism, as if the characters in a Tennessee Williams melodrama found themselves in an Albee one-act. Despite the difficulty of realizing that, the cast of six New York regulars is excellent: as good as I’ve ever seen any of them, and in the case of Nielsen, so wonderfully restrained, even better. For all the detailed behavior that shows up at the surface — the various ways the women sip from their water bottles, the shuffling or striding or creeping to their chaises — you always sense the greater weight of whatever lies beneath.
That the characters also live in a world of ideas gives the play its intellectual heft and complex texture, both light and profound. The contrast is beautifully maintained by the physical production, in which even the breeze-block wall framing the patio, by the design studio dots, is on point: a tracery of concrete and air. The women’s stretchy sweats, batik pajamas and lightweight cover-ups, by Ásta Bennie Hostetter, signify comfort but also the need for it. Birdsong and road noise are the poles of Bray Poor’s bifurcated sound world. And in Isabella Byrd’s lighting design, the minute we get used to the nearly invisible night, with just a cellphone to see by, we are snapped into the harsh May sun of the following midday.
They are all expressions of Baker’s refusal to reduce the world to a unitary lesson; “Infinite Life” offers moral philosophy but no moral. (If pain “means anything at all,” Sofi says, “then I don’t know if I can bear it.”) Illness, after all, is no metaphor. It has no purpose, is no judgment, cannot be done right or wrong; it is only itself, incomparable (though some of the characters compete over whose wretchedness is worse) and uninterpretable.
Which does not mean it is useless to think about. (When first announced for 2021, the play was called “On the Uses of Pain for Life.”) Understanding suffering, like understanding desire, may help us when we face it, or when others do, and with any luck afterward. Which, by the way, is what “Daniel Deronda,” past page 152, is about — and “Infinite Life” is always.
Through Oct. 8 at the Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.