Seven Keys and One Missed Opportunity
The Rep’s SEVEN KEYS TO SLAUGHTER PEAK
The Milwaukee Repâ€™s Seven Keys To Slaughter Peak is everything one would expect it to be. Exiting Artistic Director Joseph Hanreddyâ€™s final show at the Repâ€™s helm is a solidly entertaining comedy thriller. Hanreddy, who has helped maintain the Rep through 17 seasons, directs a cast heâ€™s worked with for years with a script heâ€™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 itâ€™s solidly entertainingâ€”as deftly crafted as a thriller as it is a comedyâ€”I found it to be a bit of a disappointment. Itâ€™s difficult to pinpoint exactly why.
Part of the reason why Hanreddyâ€™s final show as Artistic Director for the Rep wasnâ€™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 Actâ€™s Seven Stories was absolutely brilliant. Renaissance Theaterworksâ€™ The Smell of the Kill was as accessible as it was insightful. While far from flawless, Jason Powellâ€™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. Itâ€™s an entertaining plot deftly brought to the stage, but itâ€™s missing anything that lives-up to itâ€™s place as the final show in Hanreddyâ€™s long tenure as Artistic Director.
On a beautifully creepy Michael Ganio set, Brian Vaughn plays a â€˜30â€™s pulp novelist who has taken a rather large bet that he couldnâ€™t write a complete novel in 24 hours. The idea of the 24 hour novel wouldâ€™ve seemed absurd in an age prior to the invention of word processing in 1976 . . . and the stakes are extremely high here. Vaughnâ€™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 â€˜30â€™s Raymond Chandler yarn. This may have been the beginning of my disappointment with the playâ€”not at all due to Hansonâ€™s performance, which was brilliantly comicâ€”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 wouldâ€™ve found in the more accomplished work of â€˜30â€™s pulp novelists. The darkness of Chandlerâ€™s humor had a depth that shot right to the core of human emotion long before the genre had become a hackneyed cliché. Chandlerâ€™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. Thatâ€™s precisely what Hanreddyâ€™s done here. Itâ€™s not that it isnâ€™t entertaining. The Repâ€™s Seven Keys is hugely entertaining in a way that is very accessible. There isnâ€™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. Thereâ€™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. Itâ€™s just a pity there wasnâ€™t more of a depth beyond the superficial level of entertainment. What authors like Raymond Chandler so brilliantly deliverâ€”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 couldâ€™ve produced something brilliant. Itâ€™s a bit of a disappointment, but itâ€™s really, really enjoyable.
The Milwaukee Repâ€™s Seven Keys To Slaughter Peak runs through April 18th at the Quadracci Powerhouse Theatre.