Are you a winner or a loser?
Really? You’re that sure? Your answer might change once you’ve spent a few minutes with Marcus Youssef and James Long.
The pair of 40-year-old actors from Vancouver have turned making instant judgment calls into a fine art as well as high entertainment, and they’re displaying their wares at the Berkeley Street Theatre starting Nov. 10, where their international hit Winners and Losers plays as part of the Berkeley Street season.
I walk into the rehearsal hall not knowing what to expect and see two suburban daddy-type guys at the front of the room, exchanging attitude.
One looks like Tom Hanks’ younger brother. That would be Long. The other could be Aziz Ansari after a bit too much beer and pizza. That’s Youssef.
They move lightly, bouncing on the balls of their feet like boxers do. The analogy isn’t a spurious one because, when asked to describe the true nature of their combat later, Long summons up his best Russell Crowe to say their encounters are “gladiatorial.”
At first, they play verbal ping-pong, then the actual game but, all the time, they’re evaluating: people, places, things and, eventually, each other.
Toronto. Youssef argues we’re losers because we’re stuck with scandal-riddled Rob Ford as our mayor, no further comment needed, while their glowing golden boy Gregor Robertson is so squeaky clean he runs a juice factory, for crying out loud.
No, no, no, Long counters. He’s dazzled by the fact that he tried to go to a bunch of Toronto restaurants on a weekday night and they were all packed. “While, in Vancouver, they roll up the sidewalks at 8:30.”
Vancouver has beautiful mountains and scenery, argues Youssef. Yeah, counters Long, on the two days a year you can see them through the mist and fog. At least Toronto, he puts forward, has sunshine.
And so it goes. Everything is grist for their mills, from Pamela Anderson to Goldman Sachs. Some of it has been gradually carved in stone during the four years they’ve been working on the project, but a lot of it is pure improvisation, plucked fresh from their brains every night.
But the fresher it gets, the more it can hurt because they switch their “winner or loser” questions to each other. Who’s a winner as a husband, a father, a lover, a man? And, conversely, who’s the loser?
They play for real and aren’t happy until blood is drawn. On more than one occasion, they admit, the show has ended “in a meltdown”.
“We’re not allowed to make s— up,” says Youssef. “That’s one rule.”
“And the other is that we leave our wives and kids out of it,” adds Long. “They didn’t sign up for this.”
Chris Abraham, the Siminovitch Prize-winning director who runs Crow’s Theatre, is the show’s director, but he describes his job as being more of an “arbiter and audience member” than a conventional stager of a show.
He joined the duo after they’d been working on the show for a while, taking their experience as writers/performers at Caravan Farm Theatre in Armstrong, B.C., and exploding it into the air.
“We liked working together,” recalls Long “and so we decided to write a play about two Russian novelists. Our warm-up game was ‘Winners and Losers’ and it wasn’t long before we realized that would make a better show.”
They dipped their toes into the scene at a couple of indie showcases in B.C., liked the response they got and brought Abraham along for help.
But the award-winning stager isn’t immune from their razor wits.
“The beard is a loser,” murmurs Youssef, taking in Abraham’s facial hair.
“Maybe, but the jacket’s a winner,” insists Long, referencing his snappy dark tweed blazer.
They give credit Abraham the most credit for making them examine what their show is really about.
“We originally thought it was about competition and on a basic level it still is. But it’s also about relationships,” says Long.
“And power,” adds Youssef. “Power and status. The interesting thing about our pairing is that I’m the half-brown guy, but I come from a privileged background. James is lily white, but he’s way down the ladder from me.
“It all turns on class and privilege.”
Long looks at his partner with a glance that’s part friendly smile and part confrontational prelude.
“Really? So which one of us is the winner and which is the loser?”
You’ll have to go to the Berkeley Street Theatre to find out.