The setup: Not everything that takes the Manhattan theater scene by storm (besides the polar vortex) is a musical extravaganza or a heavy, thoughtful, or surreal drama. One of the hottest tickets right now is C. Denby Swanson's The Norwegians, a fairly ridiculous short comedy that opened off-off-Broadway at The Drilling Company (perhaps best known for its Shakespeare in the Parking Lot series) over a year ago and just keeps coming back.
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The execution: The show's not too complicated for Phoenix's Space 55 to produce: Two "really, really nice" Norwegian-American hitmen in Minnesota consult with a woman scorned (Olive, played sweetly and ferociously by Elizabeth Athetis from A Bloody Mary Christmas and The Unhappiness Plays) who's interested in their services. From time to time, the lights dim and restore on a flashback to a neighborhood bar where Olive met
Betty (Toni Jourdan, also from Bloody) and the two women realized their similar problems had a common solution.
Much of the script's humor comes from Olive and Betty, natives of Texas and Kentucky respectively, adjusting to both the excessive niceness and the cavalier coldness of the dating pool of their new homeland. While Tor and Gus, the "gangsters," interrogate Olive under a bare light bulb, they compliment her, sympathize, and offer her elderberry wine.
Tor, played by B.J. Garrett (Uncle Vanya and, again, A Bloody Mary Christmas), has so much Norwegian pride (he believes they invented everything from the Greek gods of Olympus to the Kama Sutra) that it's almost un-Norwegian of him. Gus (Todd Isaac, The Pillowman), who's constantly being reminded that he isn't 100% Norwegian himself, is perhaps too sentimental for his line of work -- he tends to find his clients (83% of whom want an ex whacked) a little too deserving of someone better, to the extent that he dates them, and, well, you can see where that might be going.
On opening night, the narrative felt a bit scattered. We'd heard that Jourdan had replaced another actress and had only a week to rehearse, and it's Betty's voluble Scandinavian-bashing monologues that allegedly really ignite this show's audiences. But the Valentine's Day crowd, including several people who probably appreciate hot-dish and Lutheran jokes more than I do, seemed amused and forgiving.
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The verdict: Chances are, because this cast and director Charlie Steak have built-in chemistry and a proven track record, the performances will tighten up considerably over the rest of the run. Isaac is kind of adorable, Athetis is a treasure, Garrett is just plain bizarre (as is the ending), and Jourdan will probably have made Betty her own by the time you see The Norwegians. It is definitely a piece of ephemeral frippery, though. But maybe that's just what you need right now.
The Norwegians continues through Saturday, March 1, at 636 East Pierce Street. Tickets are $15 here or at the door. Call 602-663-4032 for more info.