Shows Worth Seeing:
Winners and Losers
By Marcus Youssef and James Long
46 Walker St.
Given how modest and banal the basic premise of Winners and Losers is, it’s remarkable how gripping the show proves to be for 95 minutes. Marcus Youssef and James Long, old friends and theater colleagues dressed in their own street clothes, sit at a table playing a sort of Truth or Dare game in which they take turns mentioning some arbitrary subject—microwave ovens, Salma Hayek, Goldman Sachs, Stephen Hawking—and then offer reasons why it (or he/she) is a “winner” or “loser.” At the point of decision, each rings a little bell. Their arguments and diatribes are shallow, funny, thoughtful, glib and thought-provoking by turns, and the game is perfectly enjoyable for a while—a sort of innocuously pleasant, whimsical pastime expanded into a low-stakes drama. (There is a basic script, which the actors fill out differently with improvisation at every performance.)
After a while, other forces assert themselves. The word-game is dropped while the men wrestle, with Long the apparent victor. At another point, they play ping-pong, with Youssef winning even though Long had boasted he was the better player. The entire action, we’re meant to understand, is rooted in a loam of real competitiveness in the actors, not merely the characters, that feeds their presumably benevolent drives of creativity and theatricality. Yet the benevolence then gradually dissipates as the discussion turns personal, nasty and toxic, and the last 20 minutes of the show are rather fascinatingly uncomfortable. The performers create the impression of pushing their actual friendship to the brink.
It’s not clear that Winners and Losers ultimately has anything very original to say about competitiveness, either in men in general or in American or Canadian culture in general (the performers are from Vancouver). Nevertheless, its spectacle of possibly non-fictional actorly struggle is undeniably powerful. It’s a perversely compelling game, like a disaster-video you can’t help watching even though you tell yourself you’re someone who really hates that kind of thing.