If Scena Theatre’s production of C. Denby Swanson’s The Norwegians was a food, it would be a chocolate mousse. It is a darkly delicious black comedy about two spurned women in Minnesota who consider hiring Norwegian professionals to kill the lovers who jilted them. Yet despite the murderous subject, it has an entertaining lightness that leads to frequent and yummy laughter.
More traditional Norwegian culinary treats like Lutefisk are just one of many ways this witty play gently celebrates and mocks the culture of Tor (Ron Litman) and Gus (Brian Hemmingsen). Gus even serves his homemade elderberry wine to Olive as she sits in their man cave contemplating whether to hire the two men to kill her ex (the source of 83% of their business).
Tor and Gus may be professional killers, but they are the “nice kind” of gangsters. They show empathy and understanding while attempting to reassure their prospective client by pointing out that “Everybody wants someone dead at least once in their life – this is just your time.”
Together they make one of the most entertaining comedy pairings this side of Abbott and Costello. Their accents alone (ever seen the movie Fargo?) would provoke smiles, but playwright C. Denby Swanson gives them nicely contrasting characteristics that amplify the clever dialogue and occasional comic bickering.
Yet The Norwegians also offers a second odd couple pairing that is equally delightful. Olive (Nora Achrati) is a jilted Texan transplant to Minnesota who is still hopeful despite her heartbreak over recently being jilted in an upscale Italian restaurant. Her native charm leads her to making a new friend in a bathroom while drinking alone at a third-rate cocktail lounge.
Olive bonds with her new companion Betty (Nanna Ingvarsson) about men who have done them wrong. Betty grew up in Kentucky but five long, lonely winters in Minnesota have helped turn her into a meaner and more cynical image of herself. She is prone to venting with rants about others, including one about Norwegians that earned a separate (and well-deserved) round of applause.
It is Betty who gives Olive the idea of trying to get over her former lover by either getting a new hairstyle or hiring the Norwegian hit men. Once Olive calls the number on the business card and the two men learn the source of the referral, complications ensue.
Despite the adult subject matter and a little adult language, the humor is surprisingly gentle. Much of the levity comes from the matter-of-fact treatment of the murderous business and safe jibes at uncontroversial ethnic and geographic groups.
March 19 – April 19
Scena Theatre at
2020 Shannon Place SE
2 hours, 5 minutes with 1 intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Yet the brilliant acting makes the most out of every comic opportunity. In a lesser production any one of the four performances could be described as a “scene-stealer.” The actors all fully commit to the oddball characters with wonderful results. It’s tempting to go see The Norwegians a second time — even if you know the punchlines, the comic character contortions are endearingly pleasurable.
While The Norwegians features a supremely talented cast, director Robert McNamara also deserves credit to nimbly balancing the performances. He lets each actor take the character to the appropriate outer edge, but pulls the performances back before any become self-indulgent. The timing of the comic beats borders on perfection.
It is easy to understand why The Norwegians was such a hit off-Broadway a couple of years back. This Scena Theatre production offers pure entertainment that is as delightful and evanescent as a mild snow. While Ibsen is still my favorite Norwegian playwright, The Norwegians may be my favorite new guilty pleasure.
The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson . Directed by Robert McNamara . Featuring Ron Litman, Brian Hemmingsen, Nanna Ingarsson and Nora Achrati . Set design: Daniel Schrader . Costumer design: Alisa Mandel . Lighting design: Mary Keegan . Sound design: Denise Rose . Props design: Samina Vieth . Stage manager: Katie Key . Produced by Scena Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.