Olive, a Texas transplant in bitterly cold Minnesota, has been dumped by her boyfriend. What’s she supposed to do? Have him killed, naturally.
Rather than looking for a new love interest, Olive finds Betty, who is from Kentucky and has also been dumped. The two seek hitmen to kill their exes in the dark comedy “The Norwegians,” which opened at Live Theatre Workshop on Saturday, Jan. 11.
Betty refers Olive to Gus and Tor, partners in the hitman business. (“Hitperson” resonates with Tor.)
Gus and Tor aren’t typical hitmen, um, er, hitpeople. They are nice, polite gangsters who are proud of their heritage and thoroughness of their work, and are concerned with their business’s falling market share.
Apparently, if you’re a hitman in Minnesota, 83% of your clients want to take out their ex, according to Gus, who is the duo’s vice president for marketing. He keeps the metrics, created the slogan and has the business cards printed.
Adding to the complexity, Tor is unaware that Gus has been sleeping with the clients, including Betty, who has put out a hit on Gus with the “very prompt” Swiss, a situation unbeknownst to Olive.
Quintessential Minnesota niceness, Norwegian restraint and distinctive, over-the-top regional accents are reminiscent of Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film “Fargo” — sans the gore and the woodchipper.
The play lampoons various ethnicities, pays homage to the 1991 Minnesota Twins who won the World Series, and offers quips and comments on life, love, business and being Norwegian. For instance, Norwegians conserve the energy they might use on emotions and use it for heat instead.
Tor (Keith Wick) is proud of his heritage and constantly sharing his version of Norwegian myths, which he claims the Greeks stole. According to Tor, Norwegians invented just about everything — not unlike in the 2002 “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”— including Manischewitz wine and the Kama Sutra.
Wick is solid and stoic as Tor, and he and Stephen Frankenfield, as Gus, have an engaging rhythm and rapport. It’s easy to see these two as buddies.
Avis Judd is convincing as she exudes Olive’s anxiety and anger as well as the sadness of the flummoxed, unsure Texan who’s in the cold.
Samantha Cormier creates an off-kilter Betty and delivers a powerful monologue with comments on things you never knew you didn’t know about, like Norwegian foods.
Director Robert Guajardo keeps the nonlinear storyline moving briskly. Judd’s dashing between a barroom table with Betty and an interrogation table with hovering, would-be killers peps up the pace. The actors amp up the farcical tone by breaking the fourth wall, speaking directly to the audience.
Playwright C. Denby Swanson told the Austin Chronicle in 2015 that “The Norwegians” originated as a 10-minute sketch in a 24-hour fundraising event in 2009. Writers got a prompt at 5 p.m. on Friday. The writers’ plays were submitted Saturday morning and the plays are memorized, staged, costumed and produced Saturday evening. Swanson, whose works are usually intense, three-hour, two-intermission pieces, said in the Chronicle that the story’s potential simplicity was an enticing challenge.
Perhaps a little too simple and superficial. “The Norwegians” is packed with laugh-out-loud lines and the actors do an excellent job shaping their characters; however, their characters and their relationships are not fully drawn and you can feel the strain of a sketch stretched a bit too far. We don’t know why Olive and Betty left the South for frigid Minnesota, what awful deeds their former boyfriends did to warrant death sentences, or how Tor and Gus got into the murder-for-hire business.
“The Norwegians” is an enjoyable theater experience of sharp, dark comedy. You might have an unexpected craving for a glass of elderberry wine and rakfisk (fermented trout) or gravlaks (cured salmon) after the show.
Ann Brown is a former Star editor and reporter.