Review: Winners and Losers (Crow’s Theatre and Canadian Stage)

Winners and Losers

Funny friendly banter gets personal in Winners and Losers playing at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre

For some people Winners and Losers, which opened at Berkeley Street Theatre last night, will remind them of an evening spent with family or friends debating and arguing a wide range of subjects. In the beginning the topics are innocuous but they get political and then personal as the evening goes on and the need to win asserts itself.

For others the evening will build to a stomach-clenching crescendo of nastiness.

Winners and Losers is written and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long. They both live in Vancouver and are long time-time friends. They play themselves in the piece.

Early on in the evening I kept thinking that this couldn’t possibly be scripted, it seemed so natural; two fiends sitting having a beer and playing a game called winners and losers. One person throws out a topic and each one says whether he thinks it (or him or her) is a winner or loser. The round is over when one or both of them ring a bell. It’s not just the subjects of discussion that are deemed winners or losers; one of the participants has to win the round and, of course, the other loses.

It is scripted though. At one point Youssef says that 80% of the play is edited transcripts of conversation he and Long had over the past two years. I’m pretty sure that the part of Rob Ford wasn’t based on one of those conversations.

As the show progressed the conversation changed from what felt like a lightning round to discussions and mini-debates about each topic. The competition between the men became more overt. After all, someone has to win.

As it became more competitive it became more and more personal. Good friends know a lot about each other. If you’re determined to win a game like this you have a lot of ammunition. I went from thinking it couldn’t possibly be scripted to telling myself that ‘it’s just a play, relax!’.

Because it gets nasty.

Long attacks Youseff’s privileged upbringing. Youseff retaliates by attacking the way Long raises his kids. Ouch!

In real life this could be the end of a beautiful friendship. Thank goodness it’s a play.

Chris Abraham has done a brilliant job directing Winners and Losers. It’s a very spare production. The actors stay in place sitting at a table most of the time, standing when they talk about themselves, sitting still while they are attacked. The action gets physical a couple of times, it’s just enough to keep the audience focused on the piece.

The set is a bare stage with no backdrop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the back wall of the stage at Berkeley Street before. It’s beautiful, exposed brick with three arched windows high up on the wall.

As we walked to the car my friend Glenna and I said to each other, almost in unison, that it was a very brave thing for the actors to do. As I thought more about it I remembered a blog post I read by an actor who said that people come up to him after his one-person shows to say how brave he is to go on stage and talk such personal details of his life. His point was that he isn’t brave at all. He’s already dealt with anything that he incorporates into a show. So maybe James and Youseff aren’t being brave at this point. They must have been though when they had the initial conversations.

Glenna and I both enjoyed the show even though we both found the personal attacks at the end painful. It’s not all painful, some of it is very funny. It really is worth seeing.

Details:

  • Winners and Losers is playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until December 8th
  • Performance times – Tuesday to Saturday at 8 pm, Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm and Wednesday at 1.30 pm
  • Ticket prices range from $22.00 to $49.00
  • Tickets are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110 or at the box office

 Photo of James Long and Marcus Youssef