What determines whether something is a winner or a loser? Names and places like the Washington Monument, Bernie Sanders, and indigenous people from other nations are subject to discussion (and dismissal) as two Canadian actors have it out over what has succeeded and what failed.
Winners and Losers premiered in 2012 at British Columbia’s Gateway Theatre, and has since been performed at international venues and festivals including Denmark’s Aarhus Festival and the INTERsection festival in Terni, Italy.
The two actors play themselves. We should not presume that the characters they play are the same as their actual real-life personas, but they play at least some interpretation of them, blurring the line between what’s real and what’s invented: Marcus Youssef plays someone named Marcus Youssef; James Long plays someone named James Long (Jamie for short). They introduce themselves at the top of the show, quickly dismissing the notion of a fourth wall and instead placing the audience as a contributing force in the conversation of the room.
While there is a clear and deliberate trajectory – executed with precision and finesse – this theatrical experiment doesn’t try for plot in the traditional sense. It begins as a game. Name a topic, discuss, ascertain whether the thing is a winner or a loser. The topics, at this early point, seem plucked from headlines. Debatable, certainly. Not yet personal.
Then we learn more about each of the men – how many children they have, what neighborhoods they live in, the circumstances of their upbringings and lives – and the back-and-forth begins to adopt a different flavor, one more likely to step on a nerve.
Moreover, the move from the objective into the personal calls more attention on how we come to these distinctions – how we define our criteria, how context and experience nudge us toward one bias or the other. And these friends, affably playing a game at the show’s start, end up by the end cutting each other down – in a civil but pointed way – for the choices they’ve made with their lives.
Indeed, the escalation happens so gradually that it’s difficult to pinpoint the moment the play moves from improvised banter into the careful examination of race, class, economics, and psychology it eventually becomes. No doubt, the movements have been articulated and rehearsed – but some of the subjects of debate seem authentically new, including a few suggested by the audience.
The design is minimal: bare stage with chalk, table, chairs, and bells. Among the many admirable qualities of Winners and Losers, the ability of the two performers to carry the entire show with minimal design or stage business, just themselves and their words, seems significant.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
October 27 – November 22, 2015
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
Washington, DC 20004
Tickets: $43 – $68
For a play that is essentially a debate sustained over two hours, the performers agree with each other remarkably often. We see this often in improv – the positive phrasing of even contradictory statements makes the dialogue friendlier, less combative, more interesting to watch. Seldom do Marcus and Jamie agree on anything – the night I attended, Jamie seemed more likely to deem things winners, while Marcus was prone to the opposite response – yet I could count on one hand the number of times the word “but” was said aloud.
I suppose to fully do service to this work, I would have to reveal details of my upbringing, biases, and experiences that inform this opinion. Nonetheless, Winners and Losers is clever, thought-provoking theatre that cuts to the quick and guarantees a laugh.
Winners and Losers . Created and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long . Directed by Chris Abraham . Lighting Design: Jonathan Ryder .Stage Manager / Production Manager: Elia Kirby . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jennifer Clements.