Seven Keys and One Missed Opportunity


Mar. 28, 2010
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The Milwaukee Rep’s Seven Keys To Slaughter Peak is everything one would expect it to be. Exiting Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddy’s final show at the Rep’s helm is a solidly entertaining comedy thriller. Hanreddy, who has helped maintain the Rep through 17 seasons, directs a cast he’s worked with for years with a script he’s written. Very few people in local theatre have this kind of opportunity. Given the opportunity to build his own production with a high level of artistic freedom and one of the biggest budgets available to locally produced theatre, Hanreddy delivers a solidly entertaining comedy that seems specifically designed for a highly talented cast that performs brilliantly here. And though it’s solidly entertaining—as deftly crafted as a thriller as it is a comedy—I found it to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.

Part of the reason why Hanreddy’s final show as Artistic Director for the Rep wasn’t as impressive as it could be has to do with its spot in local theatre history. Nothing could quite live-up to the final show of a seventeen year run . . . but this has also been a really exceptionally good season for comedies in Milwaukee. Next Act’s Seven Stories was absolutely brilliant. Renaissance Theaterworks’ The Smell of the Kill was as accessible as it was insightful. While far from flawless, Jason Powell’s Invader? I Hardly Know Her had some staggeringly clever moments. Next to those three and a number of other shows this season, even a really good standard Rep comedy is thoroughly enjoyable, but somewhat forgettable. It’s an entertaining plot deftly brought to the stage, but it’s missing anything that lives-up to it’s place as the final show in Hanreddy’s long tenure as Artistic Director.

On a beautifully creepy Michael Ganio set, Brian Vaughn plays a ‘30’s pulp novelist who has taken a rather large bet that he couldn’t write a complete novel in 24 hours. The idea of the 24 hour novel would’ve seemed absurd in an age prior to the invention of word processing in 1976 . . . and the stakes are extremely high here. Vaughn’s character is shown to a remote location in Spread Eagle, Wisconsin to sit down and work on the novel. Lee Ernst is brilliantly comic as the old caretaker of the property at Slaughter Peak. The Northern Wisconsin accent sounds particularly comic here and Hanreddy has found a number of phrases that seem unique to Northern Wisconsin, giving the setting of the play a very authentic feel.

The author settles-in for the writing marathon only to find that there are six other keys to the property held by six other people. His secluded evening of writing will be fraught with distractions in the form of a parade of characters all played remarkably well by a cast almost exclusively consisting of Rep Resident Actors. The first to show-up is Joe Bland--a shady, gun-toting guy played by Torrey Hanson. Bland acts, moves and talks like a character straight out of a ‘30’s Raymond Chandler yarn. This may have been the beginning of my disappointment with the play—not at all due to Hanson’s performance, which was brilliantly comic—he even kind of looks like '30's cinema gangster James Cagney, which adds to the atmosphere. The big difficulty I had here is how close Hanreddy gets to Chandler and other hardboiled murder mystery writers of the era.

The jokes are solid and even sophisticated in places. The plot slowly ratchets-up suspense and tension in a really entertaining way, but it lacks the deeper dark comedy one would’ve found in the more accomplished work of ‘30’s pulp novelists. The darkness of Chandler’s humor had a depth that shot right to the core of human emotion long before the genre had become a hackneyed clich. Chandler’s work was both deep and accessible. Whenever contemporary writers attempt to use the milieu as a setting for something contemporary, they often end up with really accessible work that lacks quite a bit of the depth. That’s precisely what Hanreddy’s done here. It’s not that it isn’t entertaining. The Rep’s Seven Keys is hugely entertaining in a way that is very accessible. There isn’t enough beyond that to make it a memorable show.

Yes, there are some deeper elements here. The play explores those things that make fiction so compelling. There’s a real love of storytelling here that feeds into nearly every moment. The penultimate plot twist is pretty implicit in the premise and the final one seems a bit gratuitous, but on the whole, this is a very, very well told story. It’s just a pity there wasn’t more of a depth beyond the superficial level of entertainment. What authors like Raymond Chandler so brilliantly deliver—that intellectual bite beyond an entertaining story never quite makes it to the stage here. Seven Keys is not a bad show for Hanreddy to go out on, but given the opportunity he had at the head of one of the largest theatre machines in the state, he could’ve produced something brilliant. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but it’s really, really enjoyable.

The Milwaukee Rep’s Seven Keys To Slaughter Peak runs through April 18th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre.


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