Marcus Youssef and James Lang are not the sort of folks who would issue medals for participation so that no one goes home empty-handed. In the coldly black-and-white world they articulate in their absorbing and discomfiting two-handed dialogue Winners and Losers, everything boils down to a zero-sum game. Goldman Sachs? Winner, of course. Mexico? Also a winner — if you count cuisine, women, and beaches. First Nations people — how Canadians like Youssef and Lang refer to, um, Native North Americans? Big losers. As Lang notes, “I don’t think there are any trophies for the moral high ground.”
Youssef and Lang don’t always agree in their spirited back-and-forth banter, which plays through Feb. 1 at Off Broadway’s Soho Rep. On subjects ranging from Sylvia Plath (whom Lang declares a loser) to Pamela Anderson (Lang admires her up-from-the-“boobstraps” story) to who’s the better masturbator, they remain divided (often awkwardly, hilariously so).
But this is less a Canadian Crossfire or My Dinner With Andre than a high-stakes round of the dozens featuring post-reality-TV alpha males. As the evening progresses, Youssef and Lang reveal more about themselves. They are both theater artists living in a hip, gentrified neighborhood of Vancouver, both married with two kids apiece. They both left home as teenagers — Youssef to boarding school, as the son of an Egyptian-born math PhD who made a fortune for one of Canada’s biggest banks; Lang to a series of menial jobs and then college for theater studies, as the son of a hard-working single mom and a mostly absent ne’er-do-well dad.
Indeed, the two men’s relationship with their fathers — and with money — greatly informs their worldviews even though they share a mostly left-of-center approach to politics. Youssef, the stockier of the two, resembling Alfred Molina with close-cropped hair, is more worldly and bookish and even-tempered; Lang, meanwhile, is hipper in appearance and his all-black attire, and as wiry and jittery as a terrier who really needs to pee. (At one point, he excuses himself from the stage to do just that.)
Winners and Losers unfolds in a convincingly improvisatory manner, and some of the riffs (including a topic solicited from the audience) are clearly ad-libbed. But roughly 80 percent of the show is scripted, such as Youssef’s autobiographical yarn about his father which he recounts while trouncing Lang in a game of ping-pong set up on the non-tournament table on the mostly bare stage.
That game, and a subsequent impromptu wrestling match, reveal just how tenuous the relationship of these middle-aged beer-chugging bros might be. Just beneath Youssef and Lang’s easygoing camaraderie lays a simmering rivalry that will need to be resolved by their final bows. In the set-up of Winners and Losers, though, there can be no medals for participation. There can be only one winner — even if that means these combatants have to score points by crossing lines that friends really shouldn’t cross. The result is not so much catharsis as a probing, unsettling exploration of masculinity and privilege and overcoming the legacy of one’s upbringing. It’s a new-fangled bro-down — an amateur cage match version of a therapy session and a sui generis piece of theater. Grade: B+