Winners and Losers - period. The title of the play is a bit deceiving because the actual spoken rhetorical flourish used between the two sparring writer/performers of this entertaining piece of stand up actually poses a question mark after each chosen topic for discussion: winner or loser? This is the entire premise of the evening that is basically a predication in the form of a romp through the morning newspaper’s current events right on to major personal questions effecting the lives of Marcus Youssef and James Long who play themselves throughout. And always we are told who is the winner and who is the loser, as the play “embraces the ruthless logic of modern day capitalism”.
So I guess it should not be a surprise to us that the theatricality of this theme is pushed a bit to include a wrestling match and a ping pong game between the two protagonists within the course of the 90 minute running time of the show. Neither physical encounter I would call “ruthless” in its staging by Chris Abraham but certainly interesting and more than a little entertaining.
In content, the play does steer toward the dialectics of race, class and sex at several intersections and herein lies some of its better moments. Mr. Youssef is first generation Egyptian Canadian, he tells us, and is identifiable as a person of color. As such he get’s to talk about race matters with some authority. But don’t assume this also carries on to class. Mr. Youssef comes from a wealthy family while Mr. Long comes from the working class. So does race trump class or vice versa when it comes to the bona fides of identity politics vis a vis the class struggle?
As you might guess, they both have their arguments to advance. Mr. Youssef is also identified early on in the evening as the more intellectual of the two, because, according to Mr. Long, “he knows all about the Russian revolution.” Although when he got on to the topic, he seemed to forget who the Mensheviks were. But anyway, you get the idea.
During this dialog of contrapuntal ideas - which is so rapid at the beginning that one imagines the two of them priming backstage on either double expressos or Red Bull - we are told at one point that the show is actually composed of about eighty per cent tightly scripted and rehearsed material with twenty per cent pure improvisation. It’s fairly easy to spot the improv stuff because it occurs at the beginning when the two discuss topical current events and it’s clear that this part of the show each night is taken from the daily headlines.
I’m sure that in most cities of the world right now this would be all well and good; a zinger about a prominent local celebrity here, a poke at a high profile white collar embezzler over there... that kind of thing. But this is Toronto my friends and the moment “Rob Ford” came out of their mouths and placed him as current event number one within the matrix of winner or loser, the audience just kind of leaned back a bit to wait for these guys to take their best shot. I mean, we’re entering the major leagues now - Jon Stewart, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon - they’ve all been chewing on this one mightily. I’m sorry to report that when push came to shove on the question of Ford Nation - winner or loser?, Mr. Youssef and Mr. Long came up a bit short.
But then that’s the nature of the game, you win some and you lose some, but you suit up just the same and hit the field running, right guys?
Winners and Losers plays through December 8th at the Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto.
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