Winners and Losers Apr 24, 2014

by David Schleiffers

Like much of what Artistic Director Lane Czaplinski brings to the stage of On the Boards, Winners and Losers is avant garde, deconstructed, and artistically potent.  It was refreshing to experience a live performance piece that utilized a seemingly simple structure to highlight the complexities of the two performers’ lives. There was not a “setting” to speak of.  Canadian actors Marcus Youssef and James Long held a ninety-minute-long conversation (sometimes with the audience) seated at a folding table in the center of the stage. Presented in the downstairs studio theater, the space created the perfect intimate environment for these two performers to share with the audience stories of their upbringing, family issues, and financial qualms. 

They began the night by discussing a number of topics and labeling them “winners” or “losers.” Topics included cocaine, the Big Bertha drill, warranties, Canada, and therapy.  The seamless dialogue made it difficult to distinguish whether they were improvising or delivering scripted lines. Although the topics themselves appeared to be arbitrarily thrown out, their openness to voice their opinions about each topic allowed me to get to know them as individuals. I quickly understood how very different these two men were. 

The evening as a whole had a frantic energy, an impressive feat as they were seated the majority of the entire time.  The delivery of dialogue was sometimes too quick for my taste but brilliantly articulated -- I understood every word. Though the topics at the beginning were hashed through in a perfunctory manner, halfway through the evening the table was taken away and the house lights were finally brought down.  The mood became much darker.

A standout moment came when Long delivered an improvised monologue on the topic of his father.  He shared with the audience how his father had a series of heart attacks one night. Instead of going to the hospital because of chest pain, however, he went to the bar for a drink. To put it lightly, he was not equipped with paternal instincts and never showed tenderness. He died during the rehearsal process for the piece Long mentioned.  

Having dealt with an emotionally unavailable father myself, I could not hold back the streams of tears from my eyes.  I never expect art to touch me on an emotional level these days. Most artists, I feel, hold back, tentative to show true vulnerability in front of an audience.  This piece was a rarity: earnest, heartfelt, and surprisingly entertaining.  

The piece ended on a tense note when each declared the other a winner or a loser.  The argument escalated into such loathing and vitriol, I was surprised they could do this show on a regular basis.  

The show wonderfully balanced structure and improvisation. Winners and Losers is an ever-evolving piece. I would love to see the work again this weekend to observe how it changes from night to night, though I am not sure I am emotionally ready to revisit the intensity it brings to the stage and the heart.