Greedy Boozer Faces Swedish Underworld on Parisian Stage

Many call him a modern Strindberg. Lars Noren, Sweden’s most prolific playwright, hates being compared to his famous countryman.

His hero is Eugene O’Neill, the U.S. dramatist. Unfortunately, his love is unrequited. While his more than 90 plays have been translated into many languages and are regularly performed in France and Germany, he is virtually unknown in the U.S.

“Calme,” or Calm, is already the fourth production of a Noren play at the Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre, a Paris suburb.

In most of his plays, Noren, 68, tackles social issues. “Category 3.1” (1998) paints a bleak picture of Stockholm’s underworld, giving voice to drug dealers, alcoholics, the homeless, pimps and prostitutes.

“Cold” (2002) denounces xenophobia in Sweden, exemplified by a Korean boy who gets beaten up by three drunk neo-Nazis.

“In Memory of Anna Politkovskaya” (2007) pays tribute to the Russian journalist whose contract-style murder is generally believed to have been an act of revenge for her courageous coverage of the Chechnya conflict.

In 1999, Noren caused a national scandal in his prison play “7:3,” which he also directed, which used actual convicts as actors. After the final performance, some of them escaped and robbed a bank. During the pursuit, two policemen were shot dead.

Autobiographical Trilogy

“Calm” (1984), one of his earlier plays, is part of an autobiographical trilogy.

Ernst (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and Lena (Christiane Millet) are running an inn on the brink of bankruptcy in rural Sweden. He is an alcoholic; she is dying of cancer and, from time to time, gives herself a shot of morphine.

John (Alban Guyon) and Ingemar (Nicolas Pirson), their sons, couldn’t be more different: John, who has been hospitalized for a mental disorder and tried to kill himself, dreams of becoming a playwright. Ingemar despises his chaotic family and can’t wait to get out.

The play starts early in the morning when the father implores, in vain, his sister over the phone to lend him money, and after several excursions to the wine cellar, ends late at night on the same day with his desperate outcry: “I haven’t lived! My life is worthless!”

O’Neill Homage

If that reminds you of O’Neill’s autobiographical drama “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” it’s intentional: “Calm” is Noren’s homage to his idol.

The difference between the two plays is that O’Neill, though also too wordy, tells his story with hypnotic power while Noren often gets lost in empty rhetoric and doesn’t even shrink from the oldest of old hats -- monologues.

The production at the Theatre des Amandiers, directed by Jean-Louis Martinelli, is worthy rather than inspired. Gilles Taschet’s set is atmospheric yet the acting remains on the surface.

Darroussin is in specialist in wretched creatures; what I missed is the charm and former grandeur beneath his lies and whiny outbursts.

John, the author’s alter ego, is a romantic jeune premier in the vein of Kostya, the suicidal would-be-playwright in Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Guyon simply isn’t poetic enough.

Still, the production whets your appetite for more from the same author. “Calm” may be derivative. Drastically pruned and with more persuasive actors, it could be a tremendous hit.

Rating: ***.

“Calme” runs through Feb. 23. Information: +33-1-4614-7000 or

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Fantastic
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         So-so
*          Poor
(No star)  Avoid

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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