If you head north on I-77 to the Warehouse PAC this month, bundle up, because playwright C. Denby Swanson will carry you off to the wilds of Minnesota, where she learned the frigid core lesson that inspired her dark arctic comedy, The Norwegians: “You gotta find a lover before the first freeze, or else it’s too late.”
Two unescorted women, already bundled up in igloo mode, meet in a ladies’ room at a wine bar, get sloshed together, and bitterly commiserate over recently lost boyfriends. But Betty, a devious plotter from Kentucky, and Olive, more recently arrived from Texas, aren’t passively drowning their sorrows.
No, no, no. Our first glimpse of Olive is a far weirder scene. She’s hiring two hitmen, Tor and Gus, to knock off her asshole boyfriend. It just doesn’t look that way. Tor and Gus are questioning Olive as if she were the one who was trying to get hired for a job.
Less askew, but with a definitely mean edge, are the barbs that the women aim at Minnesota and Texas. The titular Norwegians, Tor and Gus, pretty much demolish their own nationality by describing themselves and their Lutheran ways. We should remember, these aren’t Lake Wobegon bachelor Norwegians that Garrison Keillor described so whimsically on the Prairie Home Companion comedy franchise. These are killers — and businessmen in competition with other area hitmen, most notably the Swedish outfit.
They are also pathologically serious, intense and straightforward. Late in the action, Betty will take great satisfaction in bursting Tor’s “irony cherry.” Nor is there homespun solidarity between the carnivores that Betty has recommended to Olive. Every now and then, Tor will throw the fact that Gus is only half-Norwegian in his face.
Confronted by the strangely hostile and aggressive personalities of the Norwegians, Olive begins to have second thoughts and Tor begins to question Gus’s marketing expertise. We still haven’t heard anything concrete about her ex’s atrocities, or a solid reason for this radical payback, when Olive also has qualms about Gus’s weapon of choice, a baseball bat.
More complications, plot twists and ironies ensue — and more second thoughts. After berating Gus for mixing business with pleasure, Tor realizes that he has feelings for Olive, who is resolving not to have the warmth of a lover during the oncoming winter. Or beyond. And Betty? She’s seriously considering contacting the Swedes and canceling the hit she ordered.
While everybody is serious here, Swanson has a knack for spicing up her dramatic tensions with wicked barbs and comedy. Meanwhile the oddity of her situations is enhanced by her odd structuring, which keeps us glued to Olive as she shuttles back and forth — in time as well as place — from the fateful wine bar meetup to the assassins’ lair.
Directing this exotic Slurpee of intrigue, Jessica Zingher doesn’t go overboard in finessing these transitions as Becca Worthington traverses the Warehouse, where the play will run through Feb. 1. Together, Zingher and Worthington make a convincing case that a low-budget production at a storefront theater is an ideal way to present the shivery eccentricity of The Norwegians. The down-market wine bar is virtually built in!
Swanson’s quirky storytelling allows Worthington to shed her victim and protagonist roles, becoming a bystander like us. Her reactions are often more fun than her spoken responses. What she sees, when Tor and Gus regularly forget about her and engage with each other, is that they are not running a good-cop, bad-cop con. There’s real friction there, personality differences that go bone-deep. Bryce Mac as Gus is seething, suspicious and volatile. Bill Reilly as Tor is comparatively stolid, stoical, trusting and calm. He might erupt, and there are moments when we sense that there are limits to Tor’s patience for both Olive and Gus to be wary of.
Yet both of the Norwegians are rather tight-lipped and purposeful, which keeps their interrogation and negotiation scenes with Olive taut and quick-paced. Will Olive freak out or will Gus? Worthington and Mac keep us guessing.
Over bottles of wine at a cocktail table, Olive’s conversations with Betty are noticeably less hostile, more leisurely paced, even if they’re mulling over similar homicidal subjects. Although Olive is clearly — visibly — the glue that binds the plot together, not to mention the two halves of the Warehouse stage, it’s Kerstin VanHuss as Betty who is the most loquacious of Swanson’s characters. VanHuss feasts on Swanson’s lengthiest and most outré monologues, giving Olive the lowdown on Minnesota life and persuading her that murder is the way to go.
Watching VanHuss cajoling her newfound chum and shakily delivering her pontifications, you begin to get the skewed idea that the Norwegians are more scrupulous than Betty. Another calibration might also happen as Worthington shuttles across the stage after each of her wine bar flashbacks: You may be thinking that the grilling Gus and Tor are giving her is helping Olive snap out of a hangover and back to sobriety.
The plot thickens after Betty makes her entrance for her first scene with the guys — and the action comically intensifies. Here we ultimately find the most intricate ensemble coordination, with Zingher’s most precisely timed direction, as Betty performs an epic ransacking of her supersized handbag that seems to extend at least five minutes and spill across a quarter of the stage. Others onstage while VanHuss performs this frantic, sloppy meltdown, searching for the Swedes’ business card, are largely unconcerned with Betty’s distress, digesting other news.
But as Betty’s junk pours out, and VanHuss feverishly rummages everywhere — inside the bag and out, on the table or under it or on the floor — her epic search syncs with maximum comical impact on the dramatic conversation proceeding on a totally different topic. Amid an avalanche of trivial debris, pauses occur and certain items emerge on cue. Maybe we can compare this unique climax to a jazz improvisation, seemingly chaotic but precisely timed.
It’s funny and memorable, that’s for sure. If not altogether happily, everything falls satisfyingly into place as Swanson’s zany, treacherous comedy concludes.