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'Winners' Brings a Dark Horse Family to the Top

EST’s new drama proves how hard it is to keep going in the world of chronic unemployment.

Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Winners by Maggie Bofill has been billing itself as a comedy, but that's a bit of misnomer. While there are certainly humorous elements, Ensemble Studio Theatre's newest family drama is just that, a drama, with complicated moral quandaries and relationships pushed past the breaking point—everything it needs to be so much more than the generic "stay-at-home dad" comedy we have seen dozens of times before. Instead, as familiar as the story may be, the Mackey family's adventures are something entirely new.

Two years after Brian and Bill's firm closes, Brian is still out of work. His wife Mabel has become the sole breadwinner, working full-time and leaving her husband to experiment with cooking and play with the pets. Their daughter Gabby is in public school for the first time, and son Tommy has picked up a part-time job at the Gap, which is now being managed by Brian's former coworker Bill.

Everything seems stable, if not ideal, until the day that Tommy announces that he has been fired from his job and the facade of "doing okay" crumbles. Then the truth comes out: Mabel's having an affair, Gabby hates her school and Tommy is torn between reporting his former boss to the police for sexual assault and respecting his girlfriend's right to the secret that will let her keep her job. This is no goofy comedy.

Winners is a polished, high-budget production, and they never let you forget it. Elaborate scene transitions transform the stage into every room in the Mackey house, the Gap, a car, an office and more, with video screens, full furnishings and a veritable army of black-clad scenic movers. The constant transitions are at times distracting, and as enjoyable as it is to watch the dog wreak havoc with the kitchen trash or the cat claim ownership of the master bedroom, I was left wondering how this play might be performed with a static set.

Still, certain production elements add a great deal to the story, such as the regular use of real food throughout—experimental egg concoctions, decadent ice cream sundaes when characters are upset or the immense power of sticking a fork into a pie being saved for Christmas and taking a bite. From the hundred-dollar motion-sensing trash can that prevents pets from eating out of it to Gabby's artistic creations, this play proves that a single family home can be an elaborate landscape all its own.

Perhaps the most memorable piece of Winners is the choice to have family dog Buck (Curran Connor) and cat Marie Antoinette (Stephanie Hsu) played by human actors, speaking when no other members of the family are present and with entire scenes on their own interspersed throughout the larger drama. While these comedic interludes are somewhat thematically disconnected from the larger and more tempestuous plot, their scenes—in particular Marie Antoinette getting stuck in the window screen and Buck's incredibly touching monologue from the pet hospital—are some of the best moments in the show.

As for the human characters in the play? There is an immense amount of shouting and lack of communication between the members of the Mackey family, which while abrasive actually makes the drama feel very real. Our central couple, Mabel (Florencia Lozano) and Brian (Grant Shaud), are convinced that they're in a story about the two of them, down to the 3am shouting match when their children are in bed, but the rest of the cast knows better.

The true star of this production is Arielle Goldman as eleven-year-old Gabby, whose insistence on wearing her father's clothes and preference for Catholic school because, "They want you to be bad. Their business depends on it. They have a clear and consistent position," make her a constant spark of joy in the dreary household. Through her, we as the audience learn to understand the rest of the family, and her touching relationship with brother Tommy (David Gelles) is the engaging, heartwarming element that draws the play together.

Scott Sowers as Bill does a great job playing the slightly creepy but always companionable friend and boss who ultimately turns out to be a sexual predator. The play as a whole handles the issue of sexual assault with delicacy and grace for the complicated problem that it is, though possibly too much is put on a character who never actually appears onstage. If Tommy's central dilemma is about whether he has the responsibility to expose Bill's behavior or to respect Mandy's privacy as a victim, it is perhaps disappointing that we never hear from Mandy herself.

Still, as a play that is primarily about regaining honesty and trust amongst a family plagued by secrets, Winners is a surprising, entertaining and engaging piece, toeing the line between comedy and reality. It's both a unique and an incredibly common story, and that is perhaps Maggie Bofill's greatest success with the play. Come to this show with an open mind, and you will likely have a good time.

Winners plays at Ensemble Studio Theatre through February 8.

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