Verbal Surfing Apr 24, 2014
by Bret Fetzer
When I was in college, my dorm-mates and I would engage in a sport of sorts we called 'verbal surfing' -- jabbering and riffing off of each other, using each others' words to launch off into new spirals of goofy, clever, dumb, or introspective language.
Winners and Losers is pretty much verbal surfing at a sophisticated level, played by two Canadians, Marcus Youssef and James Long, who are smart and willing to discuss awkward or volatile topics -- about the world, themselves, and each other. On a spare stage (chairs and a table, some hotel desk bells, a chalk boundary drawn around their field of combat), they start improvising on topics ranging from microwave ovens to Pamela Anderson, declaring each subject either a winner or a loser and justifying their declaration with arguments that are sometimes flippant, sometimes thoughtful, but the whole game of declaring people, places, and things winners or losers is pretty much always an insult to everything and everyone involved, in the most entertaining and provocative way.
Other games slip in -- James challenges Marcus to identify the performer of a song (it was Kenny G), Marcus challenges James' "wordly wisdom", at one point they literally wrestle on the floor -- and over the course of the evening, all the games increasingly revolve around two things:
Self-image and questions of privilege. Perhaps the show, being largely improvised (I believe), doesn't always grapple with these issues...but they seem pretty integral to what this is. Two guys present versions of themselves, ostensibly laying themselves bare (at one point, they described in detail their masturbation techniques) but of course this is a performance, hence they are playing characters of themselves, and each pokes and prods at the boundaries of the other's character. Presuming to judge anything as a winner or loser involves worlds of privilege: Gender privilege, racial privilege, financial privilege (it came out that Marcus is due to inherit a substantial sum of money; but James, though he came from poverty, is sitting fairly pretty himself, for all his hardscrabble bluster). The increasing aggression of the two picking at each other grows both ever more uncomfortable and ever more fascinating.
Sometimes the simplest of scenarios can unfold into greater and greater complexity, and it's a credit to Marcus and James' talent, curiosity, and bravado that Winners and Losers does just that. And does so with humor and intelligence. This is entirely worth seeing.
-- Bret Fetzer