Review: Austin Playhouse's The Norwegians
Revised revisiting of this dark comedy remains a guilty pleasure
Reviewed by Bob Abelman, Fri., Sept. 29, 2023
For decades, the vast majority of characters on Broadway who identified as LGBTQIA+ were portrayed by actors who did not. And for decades, the vast majority of mentally or physically challenged characters were portrayed by actors without those same challenges.
Things have changed significantly on Broadway and locally in matters of inclusion and representation, thanks largely to social and political activism, the influx of minority-written, -directed, and -produced productions, and actors refusing to take on roles that take jobs away from those who are more authentically suited.
So it's shocking that, in this era of heightened wokeness, neither of the two actors playing Norwegian Minnesotan hit men (Ben Wolfe as Gus and Lowell Bartholomee as Tor) in Austin Playhouse's and director Lara Toner Haddock's production of The Norwegians is actually Norwegian.
Just kidding about the shock, of course, particularly since no right-minded Norseman would ever want to be the comic relief cannon fodder created by Austin playwright C. Denby Swanson for her deliciously dark comedy. Here, every ethnic and regional stereotype – the unwavering niceness, the infallible practicality, the stoic self-righteousness, and the staunchly Lutheran worldview – comes into play. We're told that you cannot love someone who makes gravlaks and lutefisk. Who would want to perpetuate that characterization?
The Norwegians features two scorned Southern-born women (Sarah Fleming Walker as Betty and Sarah Zeringue as Olive) now living in Minnesota – the very same frigid, isolated landscape that gave Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion its quaint homegrown charm and the Coen brothers' Fargo the quirky cultural context necessary to turn cold-blooded crime into dark comedy. They meet in a bar and conspire to hire two hit men to dispatch the guys who dumped them. Enter Gus and Tor.
The actual dispatching is performed offstage and there's little action happening onstage save for Olive toggling repeatedly between the no-frills bar and the hit men's modest lair. What's left is plenty of banter and some tediously talky moments despite a brand-new script that takes the original 2014 off-off-Broadway two-act version (as staged by Austin Playhouse in 2015 by Toner Haddock) and reduces it to one act with abbreviated monologues and a shorter running time. It was actually those deliciously extended original monologues that helped break up the banter and provided some terrific acting moments.
But rising out of this shorter, simple staging and similarly unpretentious production design by Mike Toner (scenic), Mark Novick (lighting), Robert S. Disher (sound), and Lowell Bartholomee (video) is greater attention placed on the stupefyingly funny writing and the remarkable comic timing displayed by Wolfe (a returning member of the 2015 production), Walker, Zeringue, and Bartholomee. Under Toner Haddock's superb direction, their portrayals never reach the point where black comedy teeters on the edge of farce. Bold choices, rather than bigger and broader ones, make the audience respond more organically and keep the laughter flowing freely.
This is an odd piece of storytelling, you betcha, told extremely well. And with the many backhanded references to Texas (the playwright and Olive's home state) scattered throughout the script, it's a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch – and watch you should.
No Scandinavians were harmed in the making of this production.
Austin Playhouse's The Norwegians405 W. 22nd, 512/476-0084
Through Oct. 15
Running time: 80 min.