Written By C. Denby Swanson, The Norwegians is billed as a "Fargo-esque comedy." However, the lack of plot, character or underlying menace that intermingled in the Coen brothers' masterful 1996 black comedy should remove that categorization as much as The Lion King should be denied being called Hamlet-esque.
This equivalent to an SNL comedy sketch has been extended to an hour and 45 minutes with one intermission, and despite some clever jokes and an interesting twist at the end, it lives up to Tallulah Bankhead's famous evaluation that "there is less there than meets the eye."
Fortunately, the economical staging by Shannon Sindelar, the valiant design efforts, and especially the dynamite ensemble of four very talented actors elevate this to a diverting, if not particularly engaging, evening.
The plot, what there is of it, begins with the chance meeting of two young women at a bar somewhere in Minnesota. Olive from Texas (Christine Fallon) and Betty from Arkansas (Lara Knox) have been dumped by their boyfriends, and have employed the services of two hitmen, Tor (Robert Ellis) and Gus (Tom Woodward) to knock them off.
What separates this pair of killers from their competitors is that they are so nice, in a way that only Minnesota Norwegians can be. They are so polite they even offer encouraging counseling to their prospective clients while offering them homemade elderberry wine (also the preferred refreshment of Abby and Martha, the genial, homicidal aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace). That, then, is the supposedly hilarious premise upon which the rest of the plot is precariously perched: that two hitmen could be just so darn nice.
Director Sindelar does what she can to fashion something on this flimsy foundation. Through what seems an interminable series of short scenes, each separated by blackouts which make any momentum almost impossible, we are led back and forth through time, switching from the bar where the women discuss their anger with men and Minnesota, the hitmen's office or apartment or something, and the setting of the ex-boyfriends' contracted murder. There are also a couple of "fantasy" scenes thrown in which center around Gus' balletic demonstrations of his preferred murder weapon, a baseball bat from the season-winning game between the Twins and the Braves, and an imagined nightclub encounter between him and the two women, who are bedecked in tiaras and LED-lit beauty pageant sashes.
Sindelar's streamlined staging highlights the comedy in the dialogue, some of which is truly hilarious. Betty's repeated tirades against everything Norwegian, from lutefisk to gravlax, and Tor's insistence that practically everything, from the Greek gods to Manishewitz, were stolen from Norway, are comic delights. The pacing of Saturday evening's performance was somewhat slow, but Sindelar is canny enough to let the play be what it is, with no pretentions that it is anything more than an extended skit with some very funny jokes.
Laura Carlson Tarantowski's glacial, barebones set hints at the icy barrenness of the locale and facilitates the multiple scene shifts with only a table and two chairs. The reflective, two-way mirror background allows for some amusingly cheesy effects, but unfortunately also captures every safety light from the audience and concession stand. Marcus Dana's lighting and Richard Ingraham's sound design enhance the ever-shifting scenarios, and Inda Blatch-Gelb's costumes demonstrate the work it takes to live in such a climate, especially in a scene where we see Betty gird herself in layer upon layer of clothing in preparation for going outside.
It is the performances, though, which are the salvation of the evening and make us want to stay past the intermission. Three of the most versatile Equity actors in the area, Ellis, Knox, and Woodward are joined by relative newcomer Fallon to form an ensemble that heats up this frigid terrain. They crackle with subtle intelligence and are always grounded in truth, no matter how ungrounded their characters may be.
Ellis' stoic earnestness as Tor is dead on for any of us who have spent time among our neighbors up North. His implacable, even temper is really the center of the comic conceit of the play, and his low-key, affable persona is as sweet and deadly as the elderberry wine he concocts. Woodward's murderous Gus wonderfully hints at a psychopathic core beneath his goofy, somewhat dim exterior. Knox's wounded, blunt Betty perfectly embodies her assessment that "your first Minnesota winter will change you forever." Fallon's suburbanite Houston Olive is delightful in her innocent naiveté, with bursts of shtick reminiscent of a young Carol Burnett.
While the material may be as appetizing as lutefisk at a Lutheran potluck, the performances in The Norwegians are as satisfying as hotdish on a cold Minnesota night.
The Norweigans Through Nov. 16.
2340 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-932-6838, dobama.org.