The game is called Winners and Losers and it can get pretty ugly.
Two opponents sit at a table, preferably across from each other for added dramatic effect, and debate whether certain concepts, people or inventions are winners or losers.
The topics range from microwave ovens to current affairs to celebrities, anything the players think about.
But if the opponents are friends, and here’s where it gets ugly, they bring up intimate aspects of the other’s life and debate whether it makes that person a winner or loser.
The game is the premise of the eponymous play opening tonight (Friday) on Gateway Theatre’s Studio B stage. Written and performed by James Long and Marcus Youssef, Winners and Losers tackles the idea of success and the value western society places on monetary wealth.
“It asks questions of class and privilege, which people in Canada often consider, but don’t talk about,” said Long. “Capitalism for sure drives the concept. It’s the system we live in and we can’t escape from it.
“Money becomes the main indicator of success, definitely, in the western world.”
The idea of competition, and competition taken to its logical conclusion, inspired the writing of the play. Both Long and Youssef concluded that people are innately competitive.
It can result in extremely negative situations such as genocide and destruction, but also in positive, progressive inventions such as the Internet.
“I think many people consider the world as comprised of winners and losers,” said Long.
“So we want people to really look at how this affects their lives and the impact it has on them, whether it’s really a good thing or not.”
Having written together before, the longtime friends wrote the play as part of Gateway’s SceneFirst workshop series, which promotes new play writing.
The program selects three or four submissions for public readings each season. Several of the plays move on to full production.
Of 60 submissions this year, Winners and Losers was selected for public reading last January. It’s the first of the 2012 workshop to go into full production.
“The SceneFirst is a great thing to support new writing in Canada,” said Long, adding he and Youssef performed in six other workshop settings after January. “It’s so important to get that audience feedback and we found that many people were really engaged by it.
“Though it’s not a regular whodunit, it’s not so experimental that it alienates the audience.”
Although the play is completely autobiographical (each actor plays himself) and about 80 per cent scripted, the two often lob odd balls at each other each time they perform.
And like any competition, particularly when there’s baggage to be dredged up, the narrative escalates to a ruthless dissection of their lives, determining whether Youssef and Long are winners or losers.
Economic backgrounds and race are not left untouched. Both come from middle class backgrounds, but Youssef grew up with more privilege, according to Long.
“Marcus went to private school and lived in Toronto and London, his father was a banker,” said Long. “But his father was an Egyptian immigrant who basically started from nothing. And there’s also that aspect of colour, which confuses the situation as well.”
Perhaps the climax occurs when Youssef delivers a rather low blow, the nature of which remains unknown as Long didn’t want to spoil anything for potential audiences.
“We realized early in the writing process that we’d need a hard point in there to really hit one of us,” said Long. “So I told Marcus something fairly personal from my life to get at me with.
“I know he feels pretty awkward about mentioning it, but it’s important to the nature of the play.”
Although seemingly unclear towards the end, Long insisted the two are still friends, likening them to Ali and Foreman after their historic ’74 fight.
“A lot of it is about how we come to terms after this intense conversation we just had,” said Long. “But we knock our gloves together and move on.”