Packaged together as “Norway Plays”, The Returning and More are two contemporary imports from Norway, translated from Norwegian into English. Though I don’t know how the playwrights feel about the soul and accuracy of the translations, to my ear, they work smoothly in English. The plays are equally original and intriguing works of dark comedy. The second play, More, is better executed here than The Returning.
In The Returning by Fredrik Brattberg, a starkly white set (how you imagine snowy Norway) is home to a married couple who appears at the start in an amusing gimmick, smiling warmly at the audience as if they weren’t actors. The Mother (Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz) takes her place on the sofa with her knitting. She is frustrated with her husband, The Father (Andrew Langton), who keeps looking out the window, with an eye out for a neighbor’s pooch. The opening dialogue is very slow, and it wasn’t clear to me whether that was a deliberate choice by director Henning Hegland or just Mr. Langton’s shakiness with his role.
The Father, on six-month sick leave, is imagining things at the window because their only son Gustav (Kristoffer Tonning) is dead. The parents hold a funeral for him, and then lo and behold, a bedraggled Gustav comes home, having been lost in the mountains. Gustav leaves home again, and again, and again, presumed dead each time. From joyous homecoming the first time, and with successive returns, the parents gradually descend into wanting poor Gustav dead to free themselves from the travails of parenting.
Ms. Kullberg-Bendz understands the tone of the play and does a fine job as The Mother who goes from tormented parent to sick-and-tired of being a mother by Gustav’s last return. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have an equal partner in Mr. Langton who acts throughout with a faint smile that masks any range of emotion or real commitment to the action. I wondered if he was under rehearsed. Mr. Tonning hits the right notes with his starved, half crazed Gustav. Two out of three good performances, without the third, aren’t enough to create the darkly serio-comic rhythm needed to make this presentation work. I’d like to fly to Oslo to see The Returning in a production worthy of Mr. Brattberg’s fascinating writing.
There is a fifteen minute intermission to set up the eye-soothing teal blue backdrop of More by Maria Tryti Vennerod. Ida (Christina Toth) and “bestie” Benedickte (Skyler Volpe) routinely lounge on a water slide by a pond that launches their ritualistic games. On the ground, they go into a twisted patty cake, chanting “steal, murder, burn, whore, rape, pillage, and deceive” and repeat “Can you comprehend where their brutality is conceived?” With well-choreographed frolicking, skipping, and Greek wrestling, the girls take turns trying to drown each other. Only this time, Benedickte dies.
In a switcheroo of tone, Linn (Alexandra Cohen Spiegler) and Tormod (Ioan Ardelean) hop gleefully on stage, dressed like Marcel Marceau’s children in red jackets and pointy shoes, black and white pants, she with a silver lamé bustier, he with matching ruffles. They admire their reflections in their smartphones with “Damn, you look good.” They are bloggers who report and speculate juicy news, their clownish costumes illustrating the playwright’s opinion of gossip rags and entertainment TV. The play only hovers around critical satire, but Ms. Vennerod is clearly poking fun at contemporary, salacious news reporting that would make William Randolph Hearst blush.
We cut to a police interrogation room where cops Kristian (Chevy Kaeo Martinez) and Rune (Erik Schjerven) badger Ida with the accusation that she murdered Benedickte because she secretly desired her and was rejected. The cops’ relentless interrogation goes on until they exhaust themselves and Ida ultimately confesses.
Intermittently, the two bloggers reappear. They recite TV reporting clichés like “Never thought this could happen in our neighborhood” and mock putting blame for every ill of society on an unsuccessful immigration policy. (Norway’s recent mass killing of seventy-seven people) The merciless cops give us “We are a cigar in society’s big mouth.” In one over-the-top scene, the cops fox trot and tango with the two bloggers. Like “Dancing with the Stars”, they ask us to vote. Even the dead girl asks, “Am I on TV now?”
The play ends with a disco number replete with New Year’s Eve party hats and bubbles. The celebration is mixed with a strangely didactic concluding speech, “We all lower our heads in shame. Where is the man who has never done wrong?”
The actors are strong and committed to the piece. They work well with the clever staging and range of notes director Joan Kane gives them. As Ida the murderess, Ms. Toth is compelling. Ms. Cohen Spiegler, as Linn the female blogger, is quirky with her alternating Mae West and Scarlett O’Hara voices.
Most of us know Norwegian theater through Henrik Ibsen, and he was no barrel of laughs. At the very least, this cross national project introduces us to funny, ironic Norway.
Sets by Starlet Jacobs; costumes by Mira Veikley; lighting by Bruce ! Kraemer; sound designer and composer (More), Ian Wehrle; composer (The Returning), Anette Norgard; choreographer (More), Shannon Stowe; general manager, Albert Bendix; production manager, Drew O’Kane; stage managers, Colleen Lacy & Lauren Arneson; marketing/graphics, Kwasi Osei; publicist, Ron Lasko,SpinCycle. Presented jointly by Ego Actus, Joan Kane, Bruce Kraemer, founders and producers; and Scandanavian American Theater Company (SATC), Lisa Bearpark, Albert Bendix, Henning Hegland, Anette Norgard, Sebastian Nyman Agdur, artistic directors and founders. At Theater For The New City, 155 First Avenue; (212) 254-1109, www.theaterforthenewcity.net. Through Dec. 1. Running time: 150 minutes with a 15 minute intermission.
By Fredrik Brattberg; directed and translated by Henning Hegland.
WITH: Ingrid Kullberg-Bendz (The Mother), Andrew Langton (The Father), and Kristoffer Tonning (Gustav).
By Maria Tryti Vennerod; directed by Joan Kane; translated by Nick Norris.
WITH: Christina Toth (Ida Samuelson), Skyler Volpe (Benedickte), Alexandra Cohen Spiegler (Linn), Ioan Ardelean (Tormod), Chevy Kaeo Martinez (Kristian), and Erik Schjerven (Rune).