The Norwegians, a funny, off-beat, four-character play is back after an Off-off Broadway run last Spring and an Off-Broadway comeback in the Fall. It is an odd bit of business with some staying power.
The story line? Two scorned women meet in a bar and conspire to hire hit men to dispatch the men who dumped them. It could happen anywhere but it is only funny set in Minnesota.
Standing on the shoulders of giants – in this case Garrison Keillor (A Prairie Home Companion) and the Coen brothers (Fargo) – playwright C. Denby Swanson relies on our consensus estimate ofconservative, upstanding Norwegian men living in Lutheran isolation in frigid Minnesota. How else does an audience, three flights up, at the Drilling Company stage on West 78th Street, understand the head-scratching humor of two “really nice” Norwegian hit men discussing marketing strategies for their grim business with gentle equanimity?
That The Norwegians credits a choreographer, Megan Sipe, is a nod to the Ping-Ponging of one of the spurned women, Olive (Veronica Cruz), between two sets on a single, tiny stage. The hit men inhabit stage right with a table, a couple of chairs and a bottle. They spend much of the 88 minute running time interrogating Olive about who referred her to them. The other woman, Betty (Karla Hendrick) inhabits a high-top bar table, stage left. She is “the noise”, the wise and defining scorned woman who has it all figured out. Olive ‘Pings’ in every now and then to play her foil. Betty has endured five Minnesota winters, found her man, loved him and lost him, and now wants him to pay. She is bitterly funny. Enraged at being left, she kicks over all that is wrong with the man and his culture…starting with Norwegian food.
After a righteous rant on gravlaks, her version of which is “fermented trout,” she skewers lutefisk, a local delicacy.
“And lutefisk – fish steeped in lye and then covered in ashes. I mean, my god, fish, lye and ashes. (gore rising) Fish, Lye & Ashes. It sounds like a band name from the 1970’s. Like, a white r&b band.”
C. Denby Swanson’s script is peppered with a series of funny moments. Tor (Hamilton Clancy) plays his “Norwegian” as the ultimate straight man. In his worldview, it was the Norwegians from whom the Greeks stole their myths; and the Indians, their Kama Sutra. She goes to that well a lot.
Still, Swanson is not above a satisfying ‘teachable’ moment.’ Tor asks Olive, a broadly drawn Texan, what brought her to Minnesota? After a pregnant pause Olive responds: I-35? Tor doesn’t understand. Gus condescends to explain: “It’s irony, Tor.” Then he shoots Olive a barb:
“We’re not big on irony up here in Minnesota, Olive. It’s not, shall we say, appreciated.” The English major in Swanson (I’m guessing) has Olive deflate him with: “That wasn’t irony…it was sarcasm.”
Funny and satisfying moments aside, purists will argue the problem with The Norwegians is that it doesn’t go anywhere. The hour long first act introduces the characters and the story and we laugh, to be sure. But what’s it all about really? The shorter second act doesn’t help us. There is a half-hearted effort to address ‘love’, ‘fate’, the value of life perhaps. But, whatever the intent, it falls rather flat. So, call The Norwegians an entertaining evening, with odd-ball characters and an unlikely premise, that has some shining moments. It is a work in progress.
The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson.
With: Hamilton Clancy, Dan Teachout, Veronica Cruz and Karla Hendrick.
Directed by Elowyn Castle; scenic design by Jennifer Varbalow; costumes by Mimi Maxmen; lighting designed by Tyler Learned; sound by Nicholas Simone; stage manager Mary Linehan; and choreographer Megan Sipe.
At The Drilling Company Theatre for New Plays, 236 West 78th Street, Manhattan.
This is an open run. Tickets are $39.99. For information: 212.868.4444; http://www.smarttix.com. Running time is eighty-eight minutes with one intermission.