Quick: Would you say Joe Biden is a “winner” or a “loser” in the overall scheme of things? How about Salma Hayek? What about your microwave oven: wondrous convenience or a little piece of the Fukushima nuclear reactor in your kitchen? How would you rate the Zapatistas, the Occupy movement, your father?
Welcome to “Winners and Losers,” a debating game played with ruthless candor by Jamie and Marcus (James Long and Marcus Youssef), our fast-talking onstage hosts. The two sit at opposite ends of a long table. When one commentator claims he has won a round, he hits a bell and announces the next round. There are some variations: As they sip Budweisers, these middle-aged friends from Vancouver’s east side also compete to determine who has better street smarts, who rules in Ping-Pong, even who’s the better masturbator (in principle — there are no demonstrations).
Their male rivalry starts playfully, but the judgments turn personal as the evening wears on. Each answer reveals new information about the buddies’ values — their politics, their economic background, their taste in porn. Inevitably they size up each other’s character and values: Jamie then Marcus — winner or loser? That appraisal can be gut-wrenching for men hitting their middle years, but when you hear it from a friend, resentments stir.
The sly, utterly successful production — devised by Canada’s Theatre Replacement and Neworld Theatre and now presented by Soho Rep. — scores because of the ambiguities it cultivates. It’s a game and it’s not a game. It’s a play but it’s not a play. Jamie and Marcus are themselves, but they are acting. Sections are improvised every night, but Winners and Losers is fundamentally a scripted drama. All of these tensions get smoothed over because Long and Youssef speak with such ease — uptalking with conversational quirks — that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a show, not a spontaneous dialogue. (Chris Abraham directs.)
How closely do Jamie and Marcus correspond to the show’s real-life creators? Despite assurances that all the material is autobiographical, we can never be sure and probably don’t need to be. We have to identify them using what they tell us: Both are family men with two kids. Jamie, 41, is the hipper dad, a lapsed Catholic from a cash-strapped family who now likes to show a little artsy flair with his flashy red Nikes and tapered jeans. Marcus, a banker’s son, prides himself on thrift as well as cocktail-party savoir-faire; he dabbles in progressive politics and values the worldly perspectives acquired from his Egyptian émigré family.
Winners and Losers makes its fiercest points in the late sections, when mutual assumptions about privilege and inequality test the men’s friendship. Little jabs and offhand remarks give way to more somber and dangerous comments, opening a rift. (As Jamie points out, both left home in their teens, but in Marcus’s case it was to attend boarding school.) Beliefs, behavior, family choices, taste — all can be explained by money when looking at the other guy. Or can they? The play makes us question how we form judgments based on nationality, education, and other backgrounds — demonstrating how thoroughly they divide us. What starts as a sly and often funny game of differences ends up as a
nuanced and unsettling show.
Definitely a winner.