Winners and Losers
Soho Rep. 46 Walker Street
Was Marilyn Monroe a winner or a loser? How about Sylvia Plath? These are some of the questions that come up in Winners and Losers, a curious sort of game show (or grudge match) that grew out of improvisations between Marcus Youssef and James Long, long-time friends and Canadian theater artists. They ask the “winner or loser?” question about people and also countries (Mexico, Canada) and even appliances like microwaves. But just what they mean by the subjective words “winner” and “loser” is slippery, or imprecise. They never really define these words for themselves or for us, and so they wander all over the place verbally.
The main conflict in the show is supposedly between Youssef and Long and the competition they feel with each other. This manifests itself in physical sport like ping pong and even wrestling, but the big battleground is their differing backgrounds. Youssef is the son of a wealthy self-made man and still accepts money from his father, while Long is from the wrong side of the tracks, or at least that’s what they tell us. They look so extremely comfortable with each other on stage that it seems as if they are artificially agitating themselves in order to try to make something dramatic happen; they have the kind of wired, eager-to-please anxiety that would suggest that they’ve spent the afternoon drinking too much coffee. Long looks at Youssef with unabashed love a lot of the time, especially in the early stages of the game, and so when he starts to needle and attack him about his privileged background, it doesn’t ring true.
The very concept of winning and losing begs for a specific definition, and this is something that never emerges here. Does it mean material success, or moral success, or artistic achievement, or personal happiness? It all depends on how you define it, and that definition can be very elastic. There are glorious losers (Plath and Monroe) and there are odious winners. Is Henry Kissinger a winner? Dick Cheney? Surely these are questions that would be more theatrically fruitful than the competitive bickering of two friends who don’t seem to have much to fight over.
When Youssef talks about Long’s anger, it’s supposed to be a kind of revelation, but we never see any of it. Long appears to be a very laid-back, pleased sort of person, and even when they wrestle and he smacks Youssef on the ass, it feels more affectionate than contemptuous. Both Long and Youssef seem like very nice guys who are manufacturing a drama between themselves that isn’t really there (or it was there and playing it out night after night has drained the emotion out of it). The issues of class and privilege that they discuss seem tired and nebulous, and the few new improvisations they do within their agreed on structure doesn’t add much to it. They try their best, but it’s not enough to make the show itself a winner.