“Winners,” Ensemble Studio Theatre (Closed February 8, 2015)

January 27, 2015 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Maggie Bofill,
Directed by Pamela Berlin
Reviewed by Sander Gusinow
Theatre Reviews Limited

Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Winners makes me yearn for my years of reviewing psychotic performance art in meat lockers. Those days were horrific, to be sure, but at least ritalin-deprived cacophonies have the potential to evoke some sort of reaction. Maggie Bofill’s new play not quite thoughtful, not quite comedic, but something wedged woefully in between. Something of a manic artsy sitcom, Winners cannot deliver anything other than cheap chuckles, sparkling set changes, and Wes-Andersonian schmaltz.

A struggling family of four has its world turned sideways when the unemployed father inadvertently takes over his son’s job at a retail store. (a plot some may recall from an episode of  ‘That 70’s Show’) This disruption happens to coincide with the son’s girlfriend being molested by the store manager, the wife having an affair with her hotshot boss, and the daughter having an opportunity to return to a prestigious Catholic School on scholarship.

The only character who could possibly inject thoughtfulness into the play, the son’s sexually abused girlfriend, is frustratingly never seen onstage. Instead, Bofill decides to pay equity minimum for a grown man and woman in pet costumes who debase themselves with animal schtick and wax imbecilic about the simplicities of their existence. Aside from the downright childishness of it all, the problem with the pet character is they have nothing to juxtapose. The life of the family isn’t complicated. Hyper dramatic, perhaps; but the family members are so witless and one-dimensional (probably due to the sheer volume of plots) they may as well slap on masks and do Commedia.

Since the adults are utterly incapable of rational discourse, the play relies on the the mercurial, brilliant, artistic prodigy of a daughter (who will undoubtedly grow up to become the playwright) to neatly tie up all the loose ends of the play during with a quirky performance art piece. The tidy resolution serves to remind us the world is full of total idiots, save for the handful artists capable of seeing it all from on high and rescuing us from ourselves. A gaudy moral, made even more benign by the fact that the play in which it’s contained is a frenzied disaster.

An abundance of manic yelling, amateurish finger-pointing, and talking over one another overwhelms the ingeniously designed set. Despite the suburban walls and furniture folding in and out of one another, the show is visually stale. Director Pamela Berlinis far more concerned with making people laugh than quality scene work. Berlin inserts an army of guttural punctuation and sight gag into the show in an attempt to milk laughter, but her efforts only serve to extend an already uncomfortable evening.

I can pass no judgment on actors in a play like this. I will say they were all precise and on the same page. With a script so blatant and direction so bombastic, it’s hard to discern the performer’s quality. Florencia Lozano is able to find the most amount of nuance in the mother character (because she actually has to feel guilt over something) but in the end her sins are swallowed by shallow excuses and unbearably high levels of quirk.

There’s a lot of thematic talk in Winners about things ‘Not being as they should be.’ How appropriate. A play like this shouldn’t have made it across a reader’s desk, much less receive a production of this magnitude. When did intellect become so anathematic to this theatre zeitgeist? Are we so comforted by the simplicity of kitsch we must brainwash our stages with it? Despite my titanic misgivings, it may interest you to see Winners, as it is case-in-point for the downward-spiral of American theatre.