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Theatre in Review: Winners and Losers (Soho Rep)

James Long and Marcus Youssef. Photo: Pavol Antonov

In Winners and Losers, Marcus Youssef and James Long play a game that they have invented. It has no particular structure or goal, consisting as it does entirely of back-and-forth commentary. That pretty much also describes the play that contains it.

Winners and Losers, the game, is the sort of thing that kills time at a particularly slow run-through or rehearsal. (Youssef and Long have long and distinguished resum├ęs in the Canadian theatre, as actors, writers, and heads of theatre companies.) Basically, someone introduces a topic -- South Africa, the Occupy movement, and Pamela Anderson are representative examples -- and both players weigh in on whether he/she/it is a winner or a loser. It's little more than a vehicle for them to express their opinions on a variety of subjects and engage in a little verbal fencing. In the right hands, it could have the snap and unexpected hilarity of a great Nichols and May sketch.

Whether Youssef and Long are the ideal players of the game they have invented is another question. The first half of this semi-improvised evening consists of halfhearted comments that have the shape of satire without the requisite sting. Long praises microwave ovens, saying, "They're not dangerous, they're safe and they're quick ways for unhealthy British people to cook healthy food for themselves." Discussing Stephen Hawking, one of them imagines asking the physicist, "What would you prefer, Mr. Hawking? Your legacy? Or your legs?" In the middle of a little tussle about Mexico and the Zapatistas, Youssef, who is of Egyptian ancestry, announces he is an associate member of ISIS, which means he "doesn't have to go to the beheadings." Youssef also mentions that he is a member of the leftist political party COPE, which has "more factions than actual members." Forty minutes or more of this sort of fooling around is far too much; when they get into an argument about who is the better masturbator -- well, based on the evidence here, it would seem to be a tie.

It's all a setup, of course, for the big second-half confrontation where Youssef and Long turn on each other, handing out home truths and exposing each other's hypocrisies. Long, who says he grew up with a drunken, absent father and a hardworking single mother, asserts that Youssef, whose father was an executive with the Royal Bank of Canada, is insulated from the terrors of life by his family's money. Furthermore, Long asserts, Youssef overly enjoys displaying his bleeding heart: "You are good at [playing] the victim. To perform that you feel a special deep kind of sadness for the victims of social or political or grand parental injustice but it's a bad act because you've never been the victim of anything." Youssef, who has described the pain of caring for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother, replies that Long is emotionally shut down and a bit of a rageaholic: "Your Achilles' heel, your tragic flaw, what ultimately makes you a loser compared to me, is that you always have to win. You have to win because to lose might make you feel human. Might make you feel something, anything. And that's not really your thing, human feeling."

Watching them argue each other to a standstill isn't terribly exciting, for a number of reasons. As the lines quoted above may indicate, the dialogue is over-dedicated to the premise that what we're watching is a spontaneous blowup, resulting in exchanges that are wordy, halting, and altogether not pointed enough. At the same time, spontaneity is notably absent: At the point where we should begin to feel, uncomfortably, that real anger, a genuine desire to wound, is breaking through their friendly rivalry, the performances grow noticeably more calculated. Each pregnant pause and defensive mannerism feels carefully rehearsed. (Other interludes, including a game of ping-pong, and a brief wrestling match, feel like so much padding.)

Also, whatever their difficulties, both men come off as uncommonly privileged -- their problems being those of busy bourgeois artists in their mid-40s. Youssef admits that, once his father dies, he will end up a millionaire. (Long acidly notes the many expensive vacations that Youssef has enjoyed with his wife and kids, putting off their roots trip to Egypt until after they have enjoyed the delights of Hawaii.) Long may have come from poverty but he now wears $200 jeans. Despite Long's expressed fear of becoming unemployable at 65 (why is never made clear), neither man seems to lack for work. At one point, Long complains that he and his wife make $110,000 a year, compared to Youssef and his spouse, who bring in about $140,000. If this is suffering, I say, Bring it on. Winners and Losers has been described as a critique of capitalism, especially its souring effects on relationships and creativity, but it's awfully easy to see it as a cri de coeur from a couple of guys who really have nothing to complain about.

Both actors appear to be technically skilled and it would be interesting to see them in other roles, but, working with the director Chris Abraham, they haven't been able to create the kind of teasingly ambiguous atmosphere that would leave us wondering when they are fencing for the fun of it and when real blood is being drawn. Possibly, Youssef and Long have performed the piece too many times, losing an edge of danger that was previously there. In any case, Winners and Losers ends abruptly, in a gesture designed to leave us shaken, feeling that the game has gone too far. In reality, it hasn't gone nearly far enough.--David Barbour

(7 January 2015)

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