— Production photo
WINNERS & LOSERS
(This was Paul Durras’ review of the production at the PuSh Festival in 2013.)
Like so many friends, James and Marcus are certain they have interesting conversations. So they invent a parlour game in which they toss out subjects at random and judge them as winners or losers. Mother Teresa, Marilyn Monroe, Sylvia Plath, Pamela Anderson. Microwave ovens, Mexico, Canada. Winner or loser?
As both are well-connected theatre professionals, they decide to transform their two-man debating game into a two-man play called Winners & Losers, during which they will appear to debate the pros and cons of, well, just about anything.
After drawing a chalk rectangle, James and Marcus, casually dressed, simulate off-the-cuff debates on a bare stage, sitting across from each other at a table, using that table for a ping-pong game to seven points, then removing it entirely. They accept one topic per night from the audience to add to the illusion of spontaneity.
Lack of conventional plot makes the audience nervous after twenty minutes. Then superficial detours into world politics and history lead us to suspect these two guys—as likeable as they might be in real life—are not quite as smart as they like to think they are. Stephen Harper is called a winner, without any debate. Their opinions are just not that interesting.
Being guys, they each open a beer and their banter turns into a pissing contest. They attack one another’s integrity. They try to outdo each other with confessional candour, discussing their masturbation techniques. Who is more inventive? One says he likes to masturbate using images of women who resemble his wife. Okay, so these guys definitely aren’t as smart as they think they are.
Are we supposed to admire them for being so brave? The awkwardness of a faux wrestling skirmish—the phoniness of it—contrasts with the conceit that their dialogue is unrehearsed, so we start to look askance. Almost anyone can get a book published these days, so is the artistic license to reproduce one’s private life on stage becoming too easy to obtain?
But our inclination to distance ourselves from this onslaught of male posturing suddenly evaporates as soon as our debaters start to talk seriously and candidly about money. Winners & Losers has shifted into high gear, and none too soon.
The late Jane Rule, a novelist and moralist, used to say that money is something that people should discuss more openly, more often. It’s a huge part of life and yet, in many households, it’s kept secret. In keeping with the mandate of Theatre Replacement to build performances that react to contemporary existence, Winners & Losers is groundbreaking when these two friends honestly debate their economic differences.
Both men live on the east side of Vancouver. Both are married with two children. One drives a Mazda, the other a Toyota. They appear to be theatrical brethren. But their economic differences lead them to make accusatory attacks.
Marcus’s father has been the vice-president of a Canadian bank. Even though Marcus likes to shop for clothes at Value Village, and he works as a community activist for COPE, his family has easy access to airplane tickets and he is going to inherit lots of dough. Although he is the son of an Egyptian immigrant, he comes from a privileged
James wears $200 jeans but he rents. James’ father was an ex-cop who called his wife Shithead in front of his sons. Marcus has cocktail smarts, enabling him to schmooze at parties at the American consulate, whereas James tells a story about hanging out with First Nations guys in a bar, almost getting into a fight, thereby boasting about his street smarts.
We want to accept James’ argument that privileged Marcus works with COPE out of residual guilt. But then Marcus points out that the combined income for James’ household is $120,000 per year. This information pops the bubble of the staged conflict.
Obviously, both men are leading comfortable lives compared to most people in the Downtown Eastside community in which the play is being presented (in the revamped Woodward’s complex), but anyone who has the smarts to successfully earn a full-time living as an artist is, when one stops to consider the number of people would like to do so, a relative aristocratic. Our truth-daring creative types are doing quite nicely, flying off to festivals, etc., so their attempts to claim the higher moral ground over one another are arguably contrived. For that matter, on a larger demographic scale, most people who can afford to live in Vancouver are part of an elite constituency.
But Winners & Losers becomes fascinating for what we don’t know about these men. Forced to admit that he comes from a monied background, Marcus agrees to give James some of his inheritance. Unfortunately it is not specified how much will be given, or how much money Marcus could inherit. The audience is left wondering whether such a promise was ever made in ‘real life,’ and whether or not this act of generosity arising from guilt will ever come to pass. We have to ask ourselves: If the promise to share the wealth has not been seriously made off-stage, and if this promise is therefore a theatrical contrivance, does that make Winners & Losers into a phony play?
This intrigue—even if it’s inadvertent on their part—sets our minds racing in new directions. What is going to happen to this relationship between James and Marcus now that it has been redefined in terms of class warfare? … What injuries has this verbal boxing caused?
Winners & Losers oddly becomes more engaging as soon as it’s over. It is easy to imagine a second act for Winners & Losers, introducing wives and children, during which one of the friends is forced to consider saving the other from financial ruin. More importantly, it forces us to imagine ourselves having similarly invasive encounters with our own friends. And if we did allow ourselves to impolitely address the money differences in our friendships, would that destroy or strengthen those friendships? “You know who your friends are,” sings Chrissie Hynde, “they’re the ones who want you to go far.” So why don’t more people decide to share their assets? Rather than lend money to friends, why not give?
Marcus Youssef and James Long, directed by Chris Abraham, have done us a marvelous favour by stimulating a critical examination of our own attitudes towards money as soon as we have stopped looking at theirs. The further away we get from the performance, the more the content enriches our lives. This is a play you will want to talk about immediately. On the strength of its final high gear, we’ll call it a winner. As is the PuSh Festival overall.