Berkeley Rep’s Troublemaker is freakin A for awesome

Jan 11

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Robbie Tann (left) is Jake Miller and Gabriel King is Bradley Boatright in the world premiere of Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright by Dan LeFranc. Below: (l to r) Thomas Jay Ryan (left), Jennifer Regan (center) and Danny Scheie add some character to Troublemaker. Photos courtesy of kevinberne.com.

The joy, turbulence and agony of being a tween are so effectively conveyed in Dan LeFranc’s Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, that you forgive him his excesses. After all, if you can’t be excessive telling the story of a troubled 12-year-old, when can you?

LeFranc’s play, now having its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is a coming-of-age story cleverly disguised as a hyperactive, hyper-verbal adventure story invented by a bright kid with some deep-seeded emotional problems. Constructed in three acts with two intermissions, the play begins as spin on the noir genre. Instead of hardboiled detectives and criminals, we have Bradley Boatright, a Rhode Island seventh grader. And instead of all that cool Sam Spade dialogue, we have Bradley’s own invented slang that’s a whole lot more lively and fun. The words “freak” and “freakin” carry much of the load, as do “spangles, “intel,” “crotch” and “a-hole.” It’s pretend swearing taken to such an outrageous level that it’s actually beautiful in its own poetic way.

Bradley, played with irresistible charm by Gabriel King (with the occasional touch of Pee-wee Herman), sees himself as a protector, first of his widowed mom (a believably harried Jennifer Regan), and second of his best friend, Mikey Minkle (a sweet Chad Goodridge). In the absence of his dad, whose death Bradley describes as “the best thing that ever happened to me ” and “a critical part of my origin story,” has made him the man of the house, and he takes that duty very seriously. The biggest threats at this moment – in the year of, as Bradley puts it, “19 mighty four” – are Jake Miller (Robbie Tann), a snobby bully at school who derides those in working-class Rhode Island because he and his family are in “business-class Rhode Island,” and Jake Miller’s dad (Thomas Jay Ryan), whom Bradley thinks is trying to “boyfriend-girlfriend” his mom.

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Act 1 is a paragon of new play excitement. LeFranc has a fresh voice, and director Lila Nuegebauer gets fully committed, adrenaline-fueled performances from her cast, which also includes Jeanna Phillips as Loretta Beretta, the smartest girl in school, the ever-hilarious Danny Scheie as a former troublemaker turned Nazi-like troublemaker hunter named Strugis Drang, and Ben Mehl and Matt Bradley as Jake Miller’s henchmen (by the way, when you name the bad guy, you have to say his first name and last name every time). The pace rarely flags for the play’s more than 2 1/2 hours (with tremendous assistance from Kris Stone’s zippy turntable set), and the three-act structure makes absolute sense as we go deeper into Bradley and begin to see the division between his reality and fantasy worlds.

Before things begin to get very real in Act 3, Act 2 runs out of steam as the fantasy gets too elaborate. With Bradley and Mikey on the lam to French Canada (“the wild, wild west of the north, northeast”), they encounter “homeless pirate zombie guys” and scouts from the local reform school as well as Jake Miller and his posse. My interest level had sagged mightily by the end of Act 2, especially when the action gets overtly 007-ish, but Act 3, which brings an important tonal shift, gets things back on track.

As much fun as this play is – and it is boatright-loads of fun – it also deals with something quite serious: that pivotal moment when a kid can transition from troublemaker to actual criminal, when the goofing around becomes menacing and childhood mischief can turn into a series of life choices no parent wants for a child. It’s clear that Bradley, who is fully invested in his life-as-adventure-story existence, with himself as the oft-misunderstood hero, can’t see himself the way others, like his mom, see him. Bradley’s not just a troublemaker. He’s also a kid whose troubles are making bad choices seem exciting.

Troublemaker is an exhilarating new play not just for its inventive language and extraordinary energy but also for how compassionate LeFranc is toward the emotional lives of kids who are too often dismissed as old enough to know better but too young to really matter.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright continues through Feb. 3 on Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage. 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

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