On Stage: Sound the Winner’s Bell

by Chuck Conconi

‘Winners and Losers’ exemplifies the complexities of modern relationships. 

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Marcus Youssef and James Long in “Winners and Losers” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. (Photo courtesy Woolly Mammoth.)

It is immediately obvious that the two male characters in Woolly Mammoth’s production of “Winners and Losers” have known each other for a long time. And like any two friends in any relationship, they enjoy each other, but also annoy each other, and know the weaknesses each has.

Created and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, “Winners and Losers” is a lesson in the complexity of two people who care about each other. It is a relationship that can be related to any couple, including a long married couple, and shows how easily a relationship can become volatile.

All the action occurs on a completely open and empty Woolly stage — except for a long folding table, the kind you might find set up in a church basement, and two wooden chairs. Under Chris Abraham’s direction, there are no distracting other elements. The two men are recognizable and the focus of all the attention.

As we watch the early game of each throwing out a subject and arguing as to what is a winner and what is a loser, it becomes apparent that the game is only a prelude to a hidden, seething annoyance in what is more like an intellectual boxing match as each opponent jabs and feints, moving toward animosity. It doesn’t help each character’s mood with the noisy ringing of a table top bell to announce the winner or the loser.

Youssef and Long are such accomplished performers that it is difficult to determine what is ad lib and what is rehearsed. They indulge in stories about who they are and there is a ring of truth to it. Both actors are Canadian and that becomes a significant part of their related life stories. Long is from a blue collar background and Youssef’s father is a wealthy, immigrant Egyptian. Because they are performing in Washington, the dialogue is enhanced with references to their experiences around town.

At one point in the middle of the 90-minute performance, the two men actually wrestle around on the floor of the stage and end up red faced and gasping for breath. It is the only odd physical action that takes place. It seems as though it was an interlude to release some of the obvious growing tension. There is some idea that this is how men will or can behave.

What is significant about “Winners and Losers” is that everyone who sees it can bring their own interpretation and understanding of what a relationship becomes. There is a thin line between what enhances a close relationship and what endangers it.

“Winners and Losers” continues through November 22 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW. Tickets are $43-$68 and available at 202-393-3939 or online here.  


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