by Betsy Labiner
The Norwegians, by C. Denby Swanson, is more like a Tucson winter than the Minnesota winter in which it’s set; it’s brisk without being cold, bright but not quite sunny, with moments of warmth chased by a sudden chill.
The play opens with a woman seeking to engage two men as contract killers. We soon learn that Olive and her friend Betty (played by Avis Judd and Samantha Cormier, respectively) have decided to have their ex-boyfriends killed. The titular Norwegians, Tor and Gus (played by Keith Wick and Stephen Frankenfield, respectively), are gangsters – “but nice ones!” The hit men are very invested in their marketing and customer satisfaction, and their amusing asides about how best to manage and grow their business are peppered throughout with reminders of just what their business is.
We learn about the characters in trickles, as we jump between Olive’s conversation with Tor and Gus, and the earlier conversation with Betty that led her here. Under Robert Guajardo’s direction, Live Theatre Workshop’s production makes strong use of the minimalist set, using changes in lighting to create different times and locations on a single stage. The characters’ conversations at times feel disjointed as vignettes interrupt each other to offer background and additional perspectives, including at times having characters directly address the audience, but the play flows well overall as it unspools across the accumulated moments. Judd’s Olive vacillates between heartbroken fury and wistful hope, while Cormier’s Betty rants about men in general in a way that makes clear her fixation on one man in particular. The women’s interactions are both familiar and outrageous, as their frank discussion of murder is interspersed with commentary on forming friendships in bar bathrooms, what it means to be “nice”, and how to move forward after breakup. Tor and Gus, meanwhile, are oddly charming despite uneasy moments in which underlying violence bubbles up. In one exchange, as Tor seeks praise from Olive, Wick put his hands in his jacket pockets and swayed gently, giving off a disarmingly sweet and boyish air that was pointedly at odds with the way Judd was cringing away from him. As Gus, Frankenfield was more energetic, at times even bordering on unhinged – a tendency that was repeatedly condemned as not very Norwegian.
This is a play for those with a penchant for dark humor, along with those with at least some familiarity with the Midwest and its cultural mores. Though I’m neither a Midwesterner nor of Scandinavian descent, the majority of the jokes still worked for me, and I laughed out loud at many points in the play. However, I suspect a woman down the row from me – who after the play informed me that she was from Minneapolis – got even more out of the play, as she absolutely cackled with delight for the duration. The dry humor of the observations on romance and relationships, astrology, and happiness felt more universal, and I found myself nodding along and huffing in amused recognition as characters ranted about their hopes, fears, and experiences. The desire to kill (or kill by proxy) is treated as simply a fact of life, as Tor blandly explains, “Everyone wants someone dead at least once in their life. This is just your time.” I found the play’s lasting message to be about choice: how we tackle choices that can’t be reversed, how we react to getting what we thought we wanted, and, perhaps most crucially, how we can choose to be happy. This final aspect is a fascinating line of thought, particularly in a comedy about murderous revenge, and left me mulling on when and how we variously support or sabotage happiness in ourselves.
The dark premise of this play may not be for everybody, and the dialogue contains a good deal of profanity, but if you’re in the mood for a killer comedy with a large helping of Minnesota personality, let The Norwegians execute the job.
The Norwegians runs at Live Theatre Workshop through February 15th, Thursday–Saturday at 7:30 PM, and Sunday at 3:00 PM. Tickets may be purchased online at livetheatreworkshop.org, by phone at 520-327-4242, or at the box office beginning one hour prior to shows (walk-up purchasing is always pending availability).