Winners and Losers at The Cultch is a sure-fire winner

Dueling frenemies draw blood

Barbed one-upmanship. Photo: Simon Hayter

It all starts out innocently enough.

Two 40-ish bro's sit at opposite ends of a table, each equipped with a chrome plated ding bell. They take turns tossing out quiz gambits and then race each other to come up with clinching debate points -- ding! A bit like lightning chess or speed-dating or a low-rent kitchen-table mock-up of a TV game show.

The name of the game (and the show at The Cultch) is Winners and Losers. Each player gets to pick some "random" topic -- microwave ovens, Stephen Hawking, masturbation, Beyoncé, whatever. They then race each other to convincingly peg it as a Winner or a Loser -- ding! -- with a deft epigram or two. The byplay feels very sketchy and extempore, although in fact much of it is scripted.

Endearingly meta-theatrical flourishes, though, too. The players, Marcus Youssef and James Long, make no bones about being actors onstage. They frankly address their pitches straight at the house, even soliciting the audience for topic suggestions. I checked with a Cultch usher who'd seen preview performances. She estimated the ratio of set script to variable improv at about 60/40.

The tone, at first, is brisk and bantering. Do these guys even believe what they're saying, or are they just staking out positions for the fun of it?

Gradually they shift gears into broader topics. How about Mexico? You mean the whole country? Well, sure. Hmm. Pretty women, nice cuisine. Yeah, but narcoterrorism? And look what they did to their indigenous peoples, the Zapatista thing. OK, loser -- ding!

Well then, what about Canada and its own First Nations?

And suddenly, we're cutting way nearer to the bone. Residential schools. Downtown East Side derelicts discomfiting Strathcona yuppies. Cringe-worthy Indian jokes. Well, Youssef offers, at least our indigenes hold the moral high ground.

Moral high ground?! What, Long retorts, could be more Loserly than that?

And from there it starts getting personal. Long tweaks Youssef's preppy background and his trustfund-enabled East Van BoBo lifestyle. Youssef twits Long's lo-cal, decontextualized politics -- he can't even tell a Bolshevik from a Menshevik. Long counters with a dig at Youssef's serene indifference towards the kinds of culture and history that actually matter -- sports leagues and pop tunes.

Even their body types seem at odds. Long, rangy and snappish, like a whippet-bull terrier crossbred mutt. Youssef is more of a roly poly Care Bear. When, in the course of the evening, their rivalry turns physical, Youssef prevails at ping pong, but Long comes out ahead in wrestling.

They quickly revert, though, to verbal combat. Easier to land blows that way, for instance by demeaning each others' parentage and parenting. Youssef touts his Egyptian immigrant father's success story (he rose to become a Canadian bank chairman), only to see it deflated by Long as a saga of Old Country educational privilege abetted by Cold War scholarship funding and cynical brain drain.

Long's own father -- a physically indomitable drunkard footballer -- is revealed to have been a coldly remote absentee parent. But then again, Youssef notes, Long himself would just as soon spend weeks on the road touring Winners and Losers and he seems none too comfortable around his own two children even when he's back in town.

Such swipes are all the more cutting as they're grounded in the players' actual biographies. Each of them runs his own politically engaged drama troupe -- Long's "Theatre Replacement" and Youssef's "Neworld Theatre." They've been friends for decades. Their friendship has evidently survived nearly 100 iterations of Winners and Losers as they've toured it across North America and Europe in the four years since its Vancouver debut.

But what's with all the rank-outs? Is this kind of one-upmanship inescapable even in our most intimate friendships? Is it a guy thing? Or an artifact of the capitalist rat race even among professed lefties? A bug or a feature of our society? Who could be more of a loser than someone pathologically addicted to winning? And yet, we have to admit that this blood sport, with its flashes of danger and wild comedy, is disturbingly entertaining.

After about 90 minutes of such back-biting the two of them wind up stunned to silence. So are we in the audience -- so much so that we need to be reminded that the show's really over and it's time to clap.

Which we do, deservedly and enthusiastically, but with a certain lingering unease. The play's barbs about class and ethnicity might seem especially pointed for an East Van theatre crowd, after all. All the more reason, though, to take it in during its rerun at The Cultch through February 27th.

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