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‘Winners and Losers’ at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

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According to their mission statement, part of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s objective is to “ignite an explosive engagement between threatre artists and the community by developing new plays that explore the edges of…. human experience.” To say that Winners and Losers accomplished this goal would be an understatement. This play begs the question: What does it take to win an argument, and at what cost? This concept kept me engaged from start to finish, and looking around at the full house surrounding me, I would say they entered the roller coaster of emotions alongside me.

Directed by Chris Abraham and created and performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long, Winners and Losers began as a game between the two actors. They simply named a subject, such as “microwave ovens,” and debated whether the topic was a “winner” or “loser.” The arguments ranged over a wide variety of areas, such as personal anecdotes involving microwave meals for the actor’s children to the harmful impacts of microwavable meals on modern-day obesity. Youssef and Long would argue back and forth until one felt the debate was complete, and he would ring a bell with the final designation: winner or loser.

L to R: Marcus Youssef and James Long. developed the concept for “Winners and Losers.” Photo by Simon Hayter.

L to R: James Long and Marcus Youssef. Photo by Simon Hayter.

The play began as a warm-up game between Youssef and Long as they set out to write a more traditional play about Russian novelists. They would turn on a recorder, and battle it out with the debates that became more personal over time, such as who was the better actor or husband. When they listened back to the recordings, they realized there was a play there.

Viewing the play through this context explains how the two actors had such clear chemistry. Their arguments are comedic timing played off each other brilliantly, and felt completely natural. Watching these two friends on stage in an environment in which they felt completely comfortable made for a fascinating event that kept me engaged the entire time.

The fast-paced arguments were a blast to watch unfold, and the audience clearly loved every minute. If one argument got a little personal, such as one of Youssef’s jokes about Long’s children, the audience would react with a groan. If an argument was funny, such as the subject of Canada winning because of their “moral high ground,” the audience could not stop laughing. The actors kept upping the intensity of the subjects by bringing in politics, such as Obama and the conflict in the Middle East. They would do anything to win a point and I know I personally became lost in the competition, which was only enhanced through the staging.

The set was simple and bare, only consisting of a table with two small bells and two chairs. The play began with Long and Yousseff entering the stage with some chalk, and they drew a boxing ring around the table. From the start this brought the tension to an extreme height, and they immediately began the battle.

The set-up felt like a sporting event, which was brought to life through the actors beginning an actual Ping-Pong game on the table. They battled to see who was the “winner” Ping-Pong player, and their faced paced arguments mirrored their actions. This was a fascinating choice on their part, particularly because it changed the movement. Youssef and Long never stayed in the same spot for long, and movement would increase with the intensity and heat of the arguments.

The most intriguing staging choice was the moment in which Long took away the table and brought a chair closer to Youssef. Overtime the subjects became more personal, and turned into attacks that could only come from a close friend who clearly knew the other and their family history. It was at this point that the chairs were brought closer to each other, and the staging paralleled the idea that nothing stood between them anymore. I realized that while I, along with the rest of the audience, was laughing and enjoying every minute of the beginning of the performance, the room was silent. Occasionally there was some nervous laughter, but as the debate got more personal, even that sound decreased. This moment was immensely powerful, and I know I was deeply curious to see which boundary would break next.

What does it take to win an argument, and at what cost? Winners and Losers explores the depths of this question. In an interview, Long explained that, “a cruelty, based on an eagerness to win that comes so easy,” might be “innate,” and the story that Long and Youssef put on the stage confirms that theory. Watching that intense desire to win rise to the surface was a thrill, but also left me thinking about the play for hours after.

Exciting, thought-provoking, and shocking, Winners and Losers should not be missed.

Running Time: 90 minutes, without an intermission.

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Winners and Losers plays through November, 22 2015 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company –  641 D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 393-3939, or purchase them online.

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