The Winners start out with a promising premise by interrogating the old question: “What would you do if you won the lottery?” I can almost guarantee you wouldn’t one of the choices Cassie (Shanara Gabrielle) proposes, but I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re told that it has long been Cassie’s fantasy to make love with another woman while her husband, Kurt (Shaun Sheley), watches, which is fine with him. They pick (or she does or he does, depending on whom you believe at any given moment) “Tiffany” (Sasha Diamond) from her website, and the action (excuse the term) begins in their living room as the three are getting acquainted. It’s entertaining to watch their awkwardness in these unusual circumstances. The self-assured prostitute, or “escort,” as she prefers to be called, on the other hand, is quite comfortable at this point.
Tiffany’s real name is Tara, pronounced TAR-a, like the black stuff on the road. Much is made of this, for some reason. Tara hasn’t wanted to give her real name at all, and during the activities off-stage, Cassie calls her “Sarah,” fantasizing about a girl she lusted after in college. Cassie’s description of why she didn’t have an affair with the object of her desire is humorously delivered. Tara, like Sarah, is Asian, and Kurt begins to get peeved that this experience has become personalized for Cassie. Tara comes on to him separately, but he is electing not to participate “this time.” She even tries to divide and conquer by offering to leave and text Kurt so he can meet up with her and her friends later. He not only declines to do that, but he tells Cassie about the offer. Bad idea.
Not incidentally, the couple also has a daughter, Shirley (“Shirley?” Really? Who names a kid “Shirley” these days) who is not quite two and doesn’t talk yet, a fact that weighs heavily on her mother’s mind. Even though she is not seen, Shirley makes her presence known by crying every 10 minutes or so, causing her parents to argue on whose turn it is to go to her. When Cassie improbably asks Tara to check on her, the girl demurs, saying she has no experience with children, which we later learn is a lie. It’s often hard to separate the truth from the bullshit except with Kurt, who at least seems like a straight shooter. Shirley herself will also become important to the action later on.
Cassie and Kurt begin to feel the potential of their money, and I think that’s what the play becomes about. They haven’t gotten their payout, so the $337 million (less taxes, one assumes) isn’t real to them yet. They live in a pleasant, earth-toned rented home (set design by James Holborow) realistically lighted by Sean Savoie. Both still have their day jobs and, as dressed by Jane Sullivan, they look like the people they are, or in light of recent events, were. Until Tara shows up, their wealth is theoretical. As the evening progresses, they both learn what money can (and cannot) buy and both become almost giddy with the idea of their newly found power. The play’s heart is this metaphor, or at least I hope it is.
The acting as well as the direction by Marty Stanberry are uniformly excellent. Where I was sitting afforded me a very close look at Gabrielle’s face work, which showed her fully engaged in her part. Sheley played a range of emotions credibly as the somewhat whipped husband and father. Washington University student Diamond shows real comic chops throughout. Her timing is excellent, and while her experience at this point is limited, she can be a real contender on the stage if that’s the direction she wants to go. But this material? Oy! In Act II, the situation devolves into something so unbelievable that I just couldn’t stay on the ride. These aren’t particularly likeable people in their good moments. By the end, they’ve become grotesque cartoons.
The play did engender some spirited discussion afterwards, and I noted that it is the purpose of art (well, one of them anyway) to disturb. And here, the play is a winner because it is deeply disturbing. But is it art? I don’t think so, but you have until Sept. 24 to decide for yourself.
The Winners runs through Sept. 24 at HotCity Theatre performing in The Kranzberg Arts Center. For more information including details on parking, you may visit the company’s website at www.hotcitytheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT