Credit: Handout photo by Simon Hayter

From the outset, Marcus Youssef and James Long, the creator-performers of Winners and Losers, endeavor to make their 85-minute, onstage conversation feel as authentic as it possibly can. They come on stage while the house lights are still up, introduce themselves, and then announce that the show has begun. The informality sets the audience up for the central questions of the evening: How much of this is real, and does it matter how much?

Winners and Losers features Long and Youssef, longtime friends and collaborators from Canada, selecting topics to debate whether each is a winner or a loser. The central conceit of this game—that where they stand in each debate reveals a little bit more about who they are—is both seductive and reductive. At one point, however, one of the performers mentioned how much he enjoys riding the Metro—the most shocking thing said on stage all night.

The piece is often improvisational—at one point, the performers even solicited the audience’s suggestions for topics to debate. (I was disappointed when a gentleman near me suggested Donald Trump.) Despite the spontaneity, the debates generally felt like they had been constructed to underscore how differently the two men see the world, with each answer as another piece of evidence of the fundamental dichotomy between them. Some would argue that there are only so many issues through which our true character is revealed, but the performers want us to believe that where they stand on the question “microwave ovens: winner or loser?” is one of them.

But the performers defend their positions with passion and verve, and thus manage to command our attention throughout the evening. Youssef, an overeducated, overcaffeinated, trust-fund liberal, spouts facts and quips and references at breakneck speed, as if his head would explode if he didn’t get his thoughts out fast enough. Long has the easier of the two roles here, as he gets to play off of Youssef’s sputtering indignation, but he’s a singularly compelling performer, as his monologues on authenticity and his troubled relationship with his father betray a wounded, overcompensating machismo.

It also helps that the topics that they consider often go beyond banalities like microwave ovens. The two men reveal a deep understanding of history—references to Fukuyama, the Zapatistas, and NAFTA peppered this performance—and their personal, often accusatory conversations force us to confront where we stand on the thorny issues of privilege, class, and gentrification. The interplay between Youssef and Long is riveting, which is good, because that interplay is the entire piece. (They also throw in a few distractions to keep it from turning into My Dinner with Andre: namely, a game of ping-pong and a wrestling match, both highly metaphorical and somewhat inscrutable.)

So how much of this is real, and does it matter how much? Knowing that these are (supposedly) the actual personal lives of our performers being dissected on stage drives the tension. The audience audibly gasped at some of the accusations hurled—one performer says the other isn’t fit to be a parent; the other performer takes swings at his accuser’s privileged upbringing.

But I found myself being taken out of the piece all too often. An offhand comment, made early in the evening, about how the two men had plans to “explore Virginia” together the day after that night’s show kept echoing in my mind as their friendship appeared to evaporate over the course of the show. Youssef and Long want us to believe both that they might actually punch each other during the performance, and that the show would still go on tomorrow night if they did. That the tension is that high is a bit unbelievable. But I’ll give them this: given the choice between watching the next tightly wound Republican debate or this show, Winners and Losers is by far the winner.

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