About two minutes into The Norwegians I told myself, “I’m not going to compare this to Fargo in my review, because comparing this to Fargo is way too obvious and I need to dig deeper.” But dang it, there’s no real way to come at a play about a quartet of Minnesotans, two of them transplants from warmer climes and the others a pair of amiably idiosyncratic hitmen, without acknowledging the elephant in the room.
The Coen Brothers’ film and Noah Hawley’s TV adaptation are right up there with A Prairie Home Companion as forces that shape what the rest of America thinks outstate Minnesota is like, and yes, The Norwegians bears some similarities to both. Heck, James Rodriguez even looks a bit like Adam Goldberg’s jaded hitman from Fargo season one.
But C. Denby Swanson’s dark comedy is far from a knock-off, even if it embraces a few tropes we’ve all come to recognize. In a lamp-lit room, recent Texan expatriate Olive (Jane Froiland) is interrogated by two contract killers - the affable yet menacing Tor (Luverne Seifert) and the jittery, marketing-minded Gus - about the circumstances that led to her securing their services. Via a series of flashbacks we learn about Jane’s barroom encounter with Betty (Sara Marsh), a hard-drinking former Kentuckian who claims to have no more qualms about bumping off ex-boyfriends than she does about badmouthing her adopted home state. From there it’s a verbal scrum as everyone tries to sort out who’s hired who to do what to whom.
It’s a treatment that could easily go over-the-top in the hands of less capable performers, but Dark and Stormy Productions has assembled an unimpeachable cast, all of whom seem to relish the material. I’m not kidding with that bit about going over-the-top: every character here has multiple moments that require going big while delivering sharp, stylized dialogue. In a space as intimate as Grain Belt Studios, it’s a marvel that it never feels like anyone’s overdoing it. While Seifert has the flashiest role, as the studiously unassuming killer who never misses a chance to brag up Norwegian innovations both real and imagined, Froiland may have the trickiest. It’s a delight watching her lurch from timidity to exuberance and back again at the drop of a hat, keeping the audience uncertain of just what game she’s playing at, or whether she’s playing a game at all.
Our persona has entered pop culture
Swanson’s script is full of that kind of twisty, noir-ish manipulation. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff that luxuriates in its Minnesotan-ness, to the extent that it’s surprising to learn that The Norwegians actually debuted in New York several years ago. Maybe that speaks to our state’s post-Fargo cultivation of a pop-culture persona that rivals Texas and California. It seems safe to say that the average American has much a stronger conception of a Minnesotan than of, say, a Wisconsinite or a South Dakotan, and The Norwegians leans into that.
At times that works to the play’s detriment. There are moments where the Minnesota-centric dialogue stops just short of giving a knowing wink to the local audience. It’s funny when Betty launches into a pointed rant about the treachery and coldness of both the state’s weather and citizenry, or when Tor derails a conversation with another bout of misplaced Norwegian pride, but in a room full of the ostensible targets, it hits pretty close to the nose. Then again, maybe that’s part of why The Norwegians got traction outside of Minnesota. That kind of specificity comes off much differently in New York than it does in the former Grain Belt bottling house, which bodes well for future productions.
Inventive use of space, again
Grain Belt Studios is a fairly ideal venue for this material, physically as well as symbolically. Director and set coordinator Joel Sass is justly celebrated for his creative use of space, and while the design of this show is fairly straightforward - most scenes revolve around a kitchen table or a barroom jukebox - there’s room for a few inventive flourishes.
Most memorably, flashback sequences are signified by the actors pausing a scene, then cycling backwards in grotesque physical contortions mimicking a videotape on rewind. It’s a great visual that elicits laughs from the crowd, but it’s also a strangely unsettling thing to watch. That feels like a capsule of what The Norwegians strives for, and by and large accomplishes: it’s a clever, verbose very funny piece of work riding on a dark undercurrent that keeps coming tantalizingly close to bubbling over.
Also, it’ll get you wondering when that next season of Fargo is starting up already.