This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.
In C. Denby Swanson’s The Norwegians, playing through Nov. 7 at Austin Playhouse, a young Texas woman hires a pair of friendly, kind-hearted Minnesota Norwegian hit men to murder her ex-boyfriend. From there, the situation only gets more and more absurd, in a comedic play that – though confusing at times – proves delightful thanks to snappy dialogue and strong performances.
The Norwegians follows the misadventures of two young women – Olive and Betty – who hire the Norwegian hit men – Tor and Gus – to kill their former lovers. Picture the Coen Brothers directing a film version of Garrison Keillor’s “News from Lake Wobegon.”
The Austin-based Swanson’s dark comedy ran for a year Off Off Broadway in New York; the current production is its Austin debut.
The strength of the play lies less in its at times confusing plot, and more in its dialogue, which is full of wit, wisdom, and whimsy. From Olive and Betty’s bitter girl talk to Tor and Gus’ ruminations on what it means to be Norwegian, there is no dearth of memorable, hilarious lines that keep the high-energy production rolling along at a rapid pace.
All of the actors in this four-person play turn in nuanced, layered performances, creating fleshed out characters within an increasingly surreal stage world. Claire Grasso, as Olive, does a remarkable job throughout the play, but particularly in the first act, when she must jump between scenes, timeframes, and emotions with nothing more than a lighting change and sound cue. She remains a charming and vivacious protagonist, even as she becomes unsettlingly at ease with the idea of murder. Boni Hester, as Betty, has a wonderful turn in the second act, where she sheds her stock characterization as “sassy best friend” and is able to reveal a churning cauldron of anger, resentment, and, ultimately, pity.
The titular Norwegians are equally enchanting. J. Ben Wolfe’s Gus is equal parts charming and frightening, a dichotomy that becomes more important as the story unfolds and we discover his secret past. Completing the cast, Michael Stuart, as Tor, literally looms over the stage, a gentle giant filled with a combination of child-like glee, Nordic stoicism, and powerful menace.
These potent performances are all complimented by pitch-perfect comedic timing, particularly as highlighted by Lara Toner Haddock’s direction and a minimalist design team. Don Day’s lighting and Glenda Wolfe’s costuming, in particular, go quite far towards establishing the feeling of a frozen midwestern winter. The dream-like surrealist sequences and audience-directed monologues that come to dominate the second act keep the comedy at a high pitch, and in fact provide some of the biggest laughs of the night.
The Norwegians may not, in the end, have anything deep to say about the human condition, but Austin Playhouse’s production provides a raucous evening of hearty laughs.
“The Norwegians” continues through Nov. 7 at Austin Playhouse at ACC’s Highland Campus, 6001 Airport Blvd. www.austinplayhouse.com