Winners and Losers
Time Out New York
January 7, 2015
Written by Marcus Youssef and James Long. Directed by Chris Abraham. With Youssef and Long. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.
Marcus Youssef and James Long, a pair of amiable Canadian theater artists, track mud into a parlor game in their slyly unassuming autobiographical two-man show. On a nearly bare stage, they sit at a spare wooden table, and argue amusingly and digressively about whether various things (microwave ovens, Sylvia Plath, Mexico) should be considered “winners” or “losers.” Some of these exchanges are improvised nightly, but most are not—you can pick out the difference quite easily—and as the rounds of conversation proceed, marked by dings from metal call bells, the subjects get more explicitly pointed: class, ethnicity, their families, their values. But the opinions they punch out, in some essential way, have been personal and competitive all along; the shaggy-dog style of the presentation has just been disguising, for a while, its dog-eat-dog underpinnings.
Winners and Losers is set in a frame of friendly banter, but also in a chalk-drawn box that suggests a more violent struggle between Youssef, whose Egyptian-born father has money, and Long, whose troubled family does not. At one point, the two actually wrestle, and the “street-smart” Long wins easily over the “worldly wise” Youssef. It’s not a fair fight, and neither, quite, is the play, which Long also dominates; not only does he have stronger arguments and a beefier backstory, but he seems more confident with the audience and more natural in his dialogue. (By the end, Youssef is sputtering, running on discursive empty.) This may be by design, or so, at least, it seemed to me. But I’d be happy to discuss it: Winners and Losers is the kind of play that makes you want to talk and, better still, to listen.
THE BOTTOM LINE In its own sneaky way, a winner.
—Theater review by Adam Feldman