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The Norwegians

Hell hath no fury like a Minnesotan scorned.

Veronica Cruz and Karla Hendrick in The Norwegians
(© Lee Wexler)

You may have to brush up on your Scandinavian humor before seeing C. Denby Swanson's The Norwegians. The four-person comedy returns to the Drilling Company for an off-Broadway production following its extended off-off-Broadway run last season — though the source of its apparent resonance with audiences is unclear from this mounting.

For a plot that builds toward two potential murders, dramatic tension remains surprisingly sparse. The play opens on a seemingly mild-tempered Texas native named Olive (Veronica Cruz), transplanted to the cold Midwestern lands of Minnesota, who hopes to hire two friendly Norwegian hit men (Tor and Gus) to do in her ex-boyfriend who did her wrong. Time flashes between Olive's meeting with the Norwegians and her barroom encounter with a crazy-eyed woman named Betty (Karla Hendrick) who goes to town on a bowl of peanuts as she spouts bitter diatribes about men and cold Minnesota winters. Betty, a Kentucky transplant herself, has felt the scorn of man as well. After having employed the murderous services of the Norwegians in the past, she is plotting a second job for her most recent ex. However, her newest target turns out to be Gus, who must stay alive long enough to "resolve" Olive's romantic woes.

Hamilton Clancy plays the tall lumbering Tor, contrasting the petite, stockier Gus played by Dan Teachout, though both characters are equally dim-witted. Their back-and-forth quips about the magical qualities of Minnesota Norwegians need a much sharper rhythm to achieve the Laurel-and-Hardy rapport director Elowyn Castle aims to achieve. Their sluggish pace makes most of the jokes fall flat. This is not helped by the fact that the majority of the humor relies on Minnesota accents and nonspecific references to Norwegians, a group that is not known to be innately hilarious.

As the play unfolds and personal relationships (presumably attached to human emotions) are revealed, all four characters miss opportunities to offer glimmers of sincerity through the play's general farcical tone. The performances and the dialogue share responsibility for keeping the show in the shallow end of the pool. Betty's extended monologue in Act II (which she delivers from the inside of a red puffy coat selected by costume designer Mimi Maxmen) makes a mild attempt at finally cracking her hard exterior but instead gets wrapped up in its own cleverness, offering witty commentary on the dining choices of Norwegian mankind. True, tirades about lutefisk and gravlaks may elicit a few laughs, but they don't offer deeper understanding of the wounds that built up her leathery emotional skin. Cruz's character, a perpetually ditsy southern damsel, stays similarly stagnant throughout, even while the play pushes her towards a state of empowerment as she plots her ex's demise.

Not until you leave the theater do you realize how little you've learned about any of the characters with whom you've spent the past two hours. You never learn why Olive or Betty left their warmer climates for the arctic tundra of Minnesota, nor do you learn what emotional crimes their ex-boyfriends committed — other than dumping them — that was horrific enough to inspire a thirst for blood. Unfortunately, you don't become invested enough in their emotional grievances to attempt to fill any of these gaps.