Review: The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson at Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs

What better way to escape Austin's endless summer than to go to Minnesota? Austin Playhouse's The Norwegians by C. Denby Swanson has got just the antidote for you, a funny, quirky, cross-cultural, character-based comedy. This odd little piece ran off-off-Broadway for more than a year. I first saw it in 2014 at Southwestern University, where the playwright was on staff. Austin Playhouse presented it in 2015. According to Michael Barnes's profile in the Austin Statesman, Swanson dealt with COVID isolation by rewriting much of the play. So you're seeing the new, revised version.

Saul Steinberg, New Yorker magazine cover, March 29, 1976



The crossed cultures are those of the most Scandinavian part of the United States and the would-be wild west of Texas.  Betty from Kentucky and Olive from Texas meet by chance in a Minnesota bar after both were jilted by local suitors. Olive is so angry that she wants her former boyfriend killed (as a proper Texan woman would). Betty talks enigmatically of some contacts she might have.  Olive winds up cheerily interviewing hulking Tor and matter-of-fact Gus, walking contradictions both: really, really nice guys, courteous, slow talkers who make their living as hit men.



That's a clever concept, and one can understand how the inhabitants of New York City enjoyed Denby's profiles of nutsy people out there in flyover land. 


Sarah Fleming Walker, Sarah Zeringue (photo by Steve Rogers)The greatest pleasures in the 2023 stagings are the two Sarahs: Zeringue, the perky, peripatetic actor who has sung and performed all over Austin and Fleming Walker, accomplished singer and wryly assertive comedian. The chemistry between them is instant. Sarah Z is wide-eyed and a bit naïve, while Sarah F.W. is like a jaded older sister to her from the first moment they meet. Both are sharply disappointed in romance and fed up to the teeth with winter, snow, and the eternally affable males of the northern forests and fields. Sarah F.W. has a gem of a rant on that subject, as sharp and salty as you're likely to hear in a theatre as genteel as the Playhouse.




Lowell Bartholomee, Sarah Zeringue, Ben Wolfe (photo by Steve Rogers)

The intricate plot movement gets started as Tor and Gus are interviewing Olive, who has approached them with the idea of commissioning a hit job. Her excitement bounces off their careful and ponderous responses. It's a treat to see big Lowell Bartholomee onstage instead of only listed in a show program for his sound effects and media creations. Bartholomee keeps his eyes patiently on Olive, as if there's something in her expression that will finally answer their questions. Ben Wolfe is more insistent (after all, as he explains, Gus is only half Norwegian). Olive won't tell them how she got their names, probably because she's embarrassed she filched the business card from Betty's purse.


Swanson moves us back and forth between that interview and the earlier bar scene, plotting deftly so that we never get lost. The dialogue is swift and clever throughout, giving these actors lots to work with. And they do; the audience is quickly invested in each of them, their quirks, and their clashes.


I still can't figure out why the playwright and director break us away from the quickly developing plot with unexplained short and bizarre intervals that suggest LSD flashes. Contortions, floods of colored light, and slow motion instantly collide with our suspension of disbelief. The merry dance scene, also no longer than a few seconds, is like somethinhg pulled from a Danny Kaye movie. These were in the 2014 staging and one assumes they tickled the New Yorkers. I prefer character work straight up, no chaser.


(photo by Steve Rogers)


But that's just random harrumping. The Norwegians sparkles and takes you far away from the Texas heat, the construction-blocked streets of west campus, and the challenge of finding parking (give yourself lots of time). I happily add my enthusiasm to that of Bob Abelman of the Austin Chronicle (Bob, we hardly knew ye!) and Sabrina Wallace of Broadway World Austin. Now that I've written this, I can read their reviews.


The final moments of The Norwegians are a bit unnerving. After all the jollity, it's startling to see some invisible person brutally struck down, particularly when it's not entirely clear whether the hit man is about to go the same way. Amid the sweet there's a sharp taste of bitter. You'll need to see it to decide for yourself what just happened—and what's about to happen. 



Ben Wolfe, Sarah Fleming Walker, Lowell Bartholomee,  Sarah Zeringue (photo by Steve Rogers)


The Playhouse has opened subscriptions for its 4-play 24th season, which promises to be just as entertaining (Ben Wolfe morphs back into Hercule Poirot for Murder on the Links, followed by the musical The Spitfire Grill, Liz Duffy Adams's Ben Jonson-William Shakespeare drama Born with Teeth, Kate Hamill's adaptation of Austen's Emma, and the one-actor show Every Brilliant Thing). More information is available at the Austin Playhouse website.



Click to view the Austin Playhouse program for The Norwegians








The Norwegians
by C. Denby Swanson
Austin Playhouse

October 22 - November 07, 2015
Austin Playhouse
6001 Airport Boulevard
Austin, TX, 78752

October 23 - November 7, 2015

Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m.

 Austin Playhouse at ACC’s Highland Campus,6001 Airport Blvd., Austin, TX 78752



BOX OFFICE: Call 512.476.0084 or email

DISCOUNTS: All student tickets are half-price. $3 discount for Seniors 65 and up. Group rates available.