Theater Review by: Samuel L. Leiter
PING! The sound you just heard was from the kind of front-desk bell used to summon bellhops in hotel lobbies. There are two involved in Winners and Losers, the intellectually bracing, really funny, and altogether engaging two-man exercise at the Soho Rep, written and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, with direction by Chris Abraham. These smart-assed, delightful Canadians—mainstays of the Vancouver, B.C., theater scene—have created a piece based on their eponymous made-up game, in which a host of subjects are mentioned and the players—sometimes instantaneously, sometimes after considerable back and forth—must decide if they’re winners or losers; the decision is marked by a ping of the bell.
Working on a bare stage with only a long table and two chairs, with a rectangular perimeter marked off on the black floor with white chalk by the men when they enter, Youssef, 45, and Long, 41, seem to be improvising all the way through. Some of what they say is, indeed, made up on the spur of the moment; because of the way their piece—a metatheatrical hybrid of scripted play, improvisation, debate, and standup act—is structured even the set portions have room for flexibility as ideas arise during performance. The men’s totally at ease, even gabbling, conversational manner makes it impossible to differentiate the spontaneous from the prepared; there’s a palpable impression that what you’re seeing is being done for the first time. Actually, they’ve been doing the piece for several years, and are currently on tour with it. New York’s lucky to have them around.
The topics tossed around by the beer-drinking buddies range from the pop cultural—Pam Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Cruise’s wives, even Steven Hawking—to the socially significant, such as Mexico or Canada’s First Nation population (Indians, to the politically incorrect). Highlights include debates about the meanings of “worldly wise” and “street smart.” Even microwaves get to be pinged. When the audience was asked for a suggestion the night I went, someone offered “fracking,” but Youssef and Long’s response lacked the edge of their practiced material.
What Youssef and Long say can be remarkably incisive or truly hilarious but sometimes embarrassingly revealing, as when they describe their masturbatory preferences. As they race from topic to topic, with one or the other throwing new ones out for a rapid decision or extended confab, their competitiveness gradually builds up, occasionally being expressed in physical activity, such as a ping pong game (thus, the chalk perimeter) or some surprisingly vigorous wrestling.
Eventually, the tension between them takes a darker turn—as Jonathan Ryder’s lighting changes—when Youssef and Long interrogate each other on increasingly personal grounds (the Occupy movement and its 99% vs. the 1% sloganeering play a role here): Youssef is the privileged son of an immigrant Egyptian banker and multimillionaire, and Long the hardscrabble offspring of a cop with fascistic leanings. Good friends and artistic collaborators though they may be, they find themselves engaged in a competitive struggle to expose each other’s weaknesses, as in their degree of parental responsibility, class attitudes, and financial situations, doing so with scalpel-like penetration. Ouch! Maybe, however, this is what friends are for. Audience members, perhaps, will be similarly stung when they consider themselves in the mirror of what’s being said.
Winners and Losers is provocative, original, and different. I’m giving it a winner’s “PING!”
Photos: Pavel Antonov
Winners and Losers
46 Walker Street, NYC
Through February 1