Bradley Boatright is not a superhero, but he'll make you believe he is. The protagonist of Dan LeFranc's new play, Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, is a 12-year-old growing up in "working-class Rhode Island" in "nineteen mighty-four," when portable phones are still very large and seen as a status symbol. He refers to getting dressed (with some help from his mom) as "suiting up" and calls his dad's death the most significant part of his "origin story." Most importantly, he has a nemesis: a sneering rich kid from "business-class Rhode Island" with a couple of Slurpee-sucking goons.
But something's not right. When Jake Miller isn't picking on Bradley's best friend or challenging our hero to a videogame battle royale, his fiendish master plan seems to come down to matchmaking between his divorced dad and Bradley's mom. Also, Bradley's kind of a jerk, lashing out at his mom and really any sort of authority figure. To put it in comic-book terms, is he friend...or foe?
Berkeley Repertory Theatre's world premiere of Troublemaker is pretty freakin' kick-A. It's the first show to hit the main stage from the Rep's new play development lab, The Ground Floor, which kicked off last year with a bustling summer residency. Director Lila Neugebauer's beautifully paced staging makes the play's two and a half hours (with two intermissions) seem to fly by.
The superb cast is mostly shipped in from New York, although a few have played Berkeley Rep before. His squeaky kid voice takes a little getting used to, but Gabriel King has marvelous intensity as Bradley, and the elaborate streams of fake cussing he rattles off are hysterical. But the hero is always the least interesting character; it's his supporting cast that makes it work. Chad Goodridge is endearingly dweeby as his best friend and conscience Mikey Minkle, who wears a World War I flight helmet and chafes at being called a sidekick, particularly because he's black and Bradley's white. Jeanna Phillips is a preteen femme fatale as Loretta Beretta, a budding hard-boiled detective bursting with snappy patter. ("Right now you need to shut your St. Francis and move your Assisi.")
Robbie Tann's Jake Miller is a revelation, going from venom-spitting Bond villain to cringing spoiled brat and back again in an instant, and Matt Bradley and Ben Mehl are pricelessly dim-witted and sensitive as Jake's nameless minions, A-Holes 1 and 2. Jennifer Regan is a spunky mom as Patricia Boatright, though more convincing in feisty verbal sparring than in distress. Regan also delights as a crazed Nazi school superintendent in a green uniform reminiscent of the Girl Scouts (fanciful costumes by Paloma Young), and Danny Scheie is hilarious as her even more outrageously accented henchman. Thomas Jay Ryan does superb character work as an unctuous, stammering principal in a ludicrous hairpiece, a hysterically piratical homeless man, and Jake's mysterious psychotherapist father.
Kris Stone's set is deceptively simple-looking -- a slanted gray wall with telephone poles in the background -- but it's versatile and full of surprises. Conspiring with Alexander V. Nichols' lights to set a melodramatic mood, Jake Rodriguez's sound design is chock full of genre-appropriate music and videogame sounds.
Still, LeFranc's dialogue is the star attraction. It's crisp, inventive and often hilarious, mixing adventure-serial bombast ("Give this little Ms. Pac-Man the concussion of his tweens") with quirky catchphrases and near-constant euphemistic expletives ("funny as farts but loyal as freak"). Troublemaker's fabulously flashy exterior invites comparisons to the comic book and movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but at root it's a bittersweet story about growing up and getting by at one of life's hardest ages, when just getting through the school day takes heroic fortitude. So I take back what I said at the start. Bradley Boatright is totally a superhero.
Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright runs through February 3, 2013 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. For tickets and information visit berkeleyrep.org.
All photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.