Minnesota is the land of ice, snow and Norwegians. Some of the Norwegians are nice. Some are gangsters, but the gangsters will tell you they are really, really nice gangsters. But the average Norwegian men that our two heroines, Betty and Olive, have encountered turn out to be jilting, heartbreaking rats. Can a girl ever find love and happiness in Minnesota, land of the Norwegians? As the play The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson and directed by Elowyn Castle progresses to its absurd conclusion, we find out about ratfisk (fermented trout), gravlaks (buried salmon), and lutefisk (cod covered in lye), but Betty and Olive are no closer to happiness even after they have taken extreme measures to secure it.
Swanson’s quick-paced, savvy script is pure farce. It revels in the human heart’s potential for wickedness and the soul’s scourging thirst for revenge. Men, beware. Women scorned are unpredictable, jealous and very dangerous. Betty (Karla Hendrick is a comic genius) and Olive (Veronica Cruz is funny as a sweet, arsenic-laced chaser to Betty’s laugh fest) are transplants from Kentucky and Texas. In the South, women of some means are a tad traditional. They expect men to be sweet, polite, kind and generous. And if they are being two-timed, the assumption is that their men know to do it with duplicity, behind smiles and gifts, so no one is the wiser.
However, after Betty and Olive move to Minnesota, they discover things are done differently in the North. In a hysterical rant about her Northern travails, Betty lists how human interaction skews dead center to frozen in the abortive Northern climes. Minus southern gentility and grace, menfolk become rank and seething, like rats in an overcrowded city. The usual pattern for a Northern man is this: When the lout tires of his girlfriend, he takes her to an upscale Italian restaurant instead of the usual pizza parlors they’ve frequented. He orders her a lovely meal and with long, confused explanations, he lets her down with a thump. As she sits in shock, with nanosecond speed he pays the check and dashes out before she grabs her coat and chases after him with weepy, screaming arguments that spill out onto the street. When they swap brutal, spurned-lover stories, Betty and Olive discover they’ve each experienced this callous treatment.
The two women have bumped up against rotten and nasty Norwegians. When they serendipitously meet each other in a bar and drown their sorrows in wine and and whining, they find their jilting partners were cut from the same drill press. The more they talk, the more Betty and Olive discover that their hearts have been stung similarly with the bitter nettles of use and rejection. They loved while their exes yawned. Betty’s and Olive’s shattered egos are beyond repair. It’s war, and to engage in battle, they must be empowered. They are determined to be satisfied, to regain happiness as if their exes never existed and their hearts were never destroyed.
Enter two other Norwegian men, Tor and Gus. These lovely, sweet gangsters are the counterpoints to the ordinary, malevolent, horrid, Norwegian jilting males. Tor (Hamilton Clancy is very funny as the deadpan straight man) milks the Norwegian nationalism theme; he wrings the last drop of our laughter like lye being squeezed from lutefisk. His veneration of all things Norwegian makes Betty’s Norwegian cultural-weirdness jokes all the more brilliant. Gus (the equally good Dan Teachout is Tor’s foil and silly putty. They are Norwegian murderers, very nice ones. They can be hired to straighten out any woman’s unhappy love life for a reasonable price.
The high-farce characters Olive and Betty bring to mind the adage about the difference between violent crime in the South and in the North. In the North, strangers kill strangers. In the South, lovers and family do each other in (they love you to death). Since Betty’s and Olive’s former boyfriends are from the North, they never see what’s in store for them. As the plot complications increase, Betty confesses to Olive that she has had her first ex knocked off in revenge for his scorning her. She has put a hit on her second ex for the same reason. Of course, being the horrid, jilting Norwegian kind, he, too, took her to an upscale Italian restaurant and dumped her before she could begin her lasagna. “Killing your ex is a terrible, terrible idea,” Betty tells Olive, but she is thrilled to do it again. Only this second killing is being done by a Swiss because she is having one of the Norwegian hit men (the one Olive hired) snuffed out. He is the questionably nice Norwegian gangster who sleeps with his clients.
Through hysterical escapades and plot twists the characters tramp toward the ridiculous with surprising logic and credibility. This is because of Swanson’s brilliant dialogue, one-liners and unexpected surprises right up until the funny and smart conclusion. It is also because of the exceptional acting. It is widely known in acting circles that comedy is hard. This cast makes it look easy. That is because of the direction and each cast member’s commitment to being these characters.
See The Norwegians for a laugh riot. You won’t be disappointed. The show is being presented by The Drilling Company on West 78th Street in New York City. It has been extended until November 24.