Sunday, July 24, 2016

REVIEW: QUIRKY COMEDY GETS LAUGHS @ ALLIANCE REP IN SUMMIT

By Ruth Ros

"Quirky." That's how Alliance Rep Artistic Director Michael Driscoll described the troupe's current offering, C. Denby Swanson's Norwegians, when I approached the ticket desk to pick up my program on Friday night. And "quirky" is an apt byword for this company, given that they perform offbeat material in a tiny space on the lower level of a building in Summit, with limited scenery and often just a few actors.

The Norwegians is set in Minnesota, that far-north state that might as well be another country (or planet) to most of us living south of the Canadian border. Inhabited by a large number of "nice" Scandinavian immigrants and their descendents, the state is a land of long, cold winters, icy wind blasts and boredom. The plot involves two women scorned by their lovers who hire a pair of inept, but "nice," Norwegian hit men to rub out their exes. A series of mix-ups, double-crosses and mixed signals lead to some odd but delightful comedy with decidedly politically incorrect, albeit humorous, ridicule that makes one feel guilty for laughing at it (especially given the recent Republican National Convention rhetoric).

The central conceit has Tor and Gus, the hit men, actually interrogating Olive when she comes to engage their services; if she gives answers favorable to them, they will agree to take her case! Olive has learned of them through a business card she stole from the purse of a new acquaintance, Betty, when the latter went to the bar restroom. When Betty is revealed to have hired the same duo and become romantically involved with one, only to want to have him whacked, the ensuing shenanigans become darkly serio-comic where, despite our reservations, we find ourselves laughing at the flippant treatment of murder.

Complete with Fargo-like accents, Donald Danforth and Danny Siegal respectively portray Tor and Gus with a rather zany emphasis on their Norwegian/Minnesotan niceness. Ironically, these two friendly seeming men hire themselves out to commit murder! Danforth and Siegal broadly play the two as caricatures, which often works against the bitter, serious aspect of the plot. Some of their references to Minnesota (Tor utters "oofda" from time to time and both mention some food called "hot dish") may resonate more with those familiar with the state, but their manner of delivery wrings laughs from unfamiliar terms. When Gus discovers that Betty has hired a Swiss hit man to bump him off, he freezes with a grotesque look on his face that doesn't feel quite real. But it is comical.

Shawna Lagan is Olive (left), a charming, mild-tempered Texas transplant (lots of jokes about secession here) who has followed her Norwegian-American lover north, only to have him break up with her in a fancy restaurant where he knows she won't cause a scene. And Leslie Williams (right) is particularly hilarious as Kentucky-born Betty, who reels off the disadvantages of living in Minnesota with a dead-pan, intent delivery that makes her appear insane, especially her long monologue about her distrust of Norwegians. She drolly says, "You gotta find a lover before the first freeze or else it’s just too late, you’re iced in for a very long time, all alone," as "not Minnesota nice." Williams' eyes bespeak a dangerous looniness as she utters such cynical diatribes (the one about Minnesotan cuisine is especially funny).

Michael Driscoll's direction sometimes flags, especially during the Laurel and Hardy-like patter between the two hit men. Gordon Wiener's operation of the light and sound boards (light designed by Ed Pearson and sound by Brad Howell and Driscoll) works quite well, especially when he trains a spotlight on the handbag on the table or the lightning bolt that "strikes" Gus when he learns he's been set up to be whacked by Betty.

The comedy in this odd, "quirky" play is delivered very broadly, so don't expect realistic characters. Part of the problem is that playwright Swanson never tells us what made Olive and Betty leave their warmer climes for such forbidding tundra-like terrain. Nor do we learn why, other than their dumping their girlfriends, the two victims-to-be deserve to be killed.

Nevertheless, if you are searching for something humorous (albeit with a dark edge), you'll enjoy The Norwegians. It's quirkiness is a perfect hallmark for this little pocket professional theater group.

The Norwegians will be performed through July 30 in the little black box theater on the lower level of Mondo, 426 Springfield Ave., Summit. For information and tickets, visit www.alliancerep.org online.

Photos by Howard Fischer.