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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

‘Seven Keys’ to Comedy at Milwaukee Rep

Theater Review

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Seven Keys to Slaughter Peak is Joseph Hanreddy’s original new take on the classic mystery comedy Seven Keys to Baldpate. The final production of Hanreddy’s 17-year tenure at Milwaukee Repertory Theater brightens the Quadracci Powerhouse stage with a hilarious array of one-liners and a story variation that might have been developed by the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino.

In this iteration, pulp-fiction writer William Magee, expertly played by Brian Vaughn, hopes to isolate himself at a northern Wisconsin resort called Slaughter Peak to win a bet with his rich friend, Mr. Bently, by producing a new mystery novelwithin 24 hours.

Though he thinks he has the only key to the resort, Magee soon discovers there are six others in the hands of an odd assortment of surprise visitors who keep cropping up inopportunely with an increasingly weird set of motifs and cross-purposes. There is a corrupt mayor (Steve Pickering) who expects a $20,0000 bribe from a crooked railroad official (Jonathan Gillard Daly). Also on hand are gangster Lou Max (brilliantly played by Gerard Neugent) and his disreputable, blackmailing girlfriend, Myra (a spiky Deborah Staples). And then comes Mary Hitchcock, a sweet reporter who only wants a story on the playwright, along with her mother Alice Hitchcock (the redoubtable Laura Gordon). This odd assortment interacts bizarrely, as from a parallel universe.

Throughout, Magee keeps reciting hilariously banal, amateurish descriptions that sound like portions of his novel to be. It soon becomes apparent that the unwieldy, outlandish, sometimes confusing first act is, in fact, the novel itself. There are shootings, bodies and absurd plot configurations—until the audience realizes it is being taken on a joy ride that is almost too good to be true. Creative absurdity is the benchmark of its biting satire, zanily reminiscent of the Marx Brothers, with a touch of Tarantino thrown in for good measure. Hanreddy’s spiffy writing carries the day without slacking.

There are too many good performances to list, but Lee Ernst as the caretaker, Torrey Hanson as a thug and Peter Silbert as a hermit deserve attention among a talented cast. All in all this is a memorable send-off for director Joseph Hanreddy. He will be missed.

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