Norway is one of those small, gentle countries that we may not think of too often. In its Scandinavian quiescence, it hums along with its cold weather and sterling social services. But in C. Denby Swanson’s black comedy The Norwegians, playing now at Scena Theatre, the land of fjords and fish takes center stage, literally. With its Fargo-esque atmosphere and wonderfully quirky characters, The Norwegians mostly satisfies, and, as is so characteristic of the “Minnesota nice” that it portrays, it does so with a smile on its face.
The premise of The Norwegians is simple, at least on its face: a vulnerable yet strong-willed Texas transplant, Olive (played with hilarious gusto by Nora Achrati, whose puffy Minnesota jackets mostly conceal her real life pregnant belly) goes to two hit men to kill her ex-boyfriend. Olive has gotten this “referral” from her new friend Betty (the extraordinary Nanna Ingvarsson) who has just had the very same job done. What Betty doesn’t expect however is that the guns-for-hire in question, Gus (Brian Hemmingsen) and Tor (Ron Litman) are Norwegians who take their heritage seriously. In their words, they’re “nice” hit men who spend just as much time printing business cards and getting to know their clients (for marketing purposes, of course) as they do with the actual snuffing out of their victims. Needless to say, Olive’s revenge journey doesn’t go exactly as planned, with alternately grim and hilarious consequences.
Director (and Scena Artistic Director) Robert McNamara skillfully uncovers the human heart that beats underneath the goofy exterior of The Norwegians. First, the play is peppered with fantasy sequences that, utilizing a combination of Mary Keegan’s light design and Denise Rose’s sound design, create a truly Lynchian atmosphere that may not elucidate, but which certainly intrigues. Second, there is a distinct rhythm to the dialogue, and when the actors are in the groove of it, I was right there with them. When the rhythm is lost, so, too, was my attention.
That being said, the idiosyncratic flow of the show is almost always kept afloat, and that thanks to a marvelous four-person cast. The titular Norwegians manage to maintain an aura of menace that belies their smiling faces and polite “don’cha knows”. Brian Hemmingsen, as Gus, is a hulking Viking who is mythological in stature yet vulnerable in matters of the heart (aren’t we all?).
Ron Litman, as Tor, is fond of attributing most things to Norwegians, including the stars in the sky. His is perhaps the most dramatic arc in the show, and he plays it with skill and good humor.
Nora Achrati, the aforementioned Texan, is at her funniest when the anger her character feels deep inside bursts out of her tiny frame, and her voice becomes like the roar of a diesel truck.
But make no mistake: the true star of this show is Nanna Ingvarsson. From the very beginning, her bitter, love struck, conniving, co dependent, possibly alcoholic Betty is a terrible, wonderful character to behold. Betty’s occasional diatribes about Minnesota, men, and, of course, Norwegians, are hilarious and oddly moving.
The Norwegians is probably not high up on Norway’s lists of tourism materials, what with the murdering and whatnot. But it is a lot of laughs, and in the waning days of winter, it gives us all a place to come in from the cold.
Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.
The Norwegians plays through April 19, 2015 at Scena Theatre, performing at the Anacostia Playhouse – 2020 Shannon Place SE, in Washington, D.C. Tickets can be purchased at the door or by going online.