Potty-mouth tweens wield language like a light-saber in "Troublemaker, or the Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright."
Dan LeFranc's hyperkinetic new play is a middle school hero's journey in the manner of Frodo or Luke Skywalker, only the weapons his characters thrust and parry are words instead of swords. Bradley (the appealing Gabriel King), a geeky 12-year-old in blue-collar Rhode Island, refers to his enemies as "lamers" and "crotches." His saucy pal Loretta Beretta (a tart Jeanna Phillips) threatens someone with ripping off his breadstick and shoving it up his Olive Garden. When she exclaims "spangles!," she ain't talking about glitter. Instead it's one of the legions of colorful curse words invented by this posse of precocious preteens.
Wildly fun but also flawed, this breakneck farce loses its way more than once in its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Still, there's no denying LeFranc's ("Sixty Miles to Silver Lake," "The Big Meal") ear for the snap and pop of patois. The playwright has created a juicy new lexicon for the digital generation that hints at obscenity without actually being vulgar. Only the adults, the arch-villains in this universe, are left speaking everyday English, which comes off as quite dreary and mundane in comparison.
Steeped in the kick-ass aesthetic of video games and comic books, the action barrels along at warp speed for three utterly outrageous acts. Our backpack-toting, hoodie-clad hero Bradley battles zombies, pirates, Nazis, bullies and his mom (a moving turn by Jennifer Regan) in a zany coming-of-age saga that takes place in the "nineteen-mighties," a mashup of the '80s, '90s and aughts. Unfortunately, LeFranc doesn't know where to go after the play's irresistibly breezy beginning.
"Troublemaker's" ambitious script gets bogged down over a belabored showdown with Bradley's nemesis Jake (Robbie Tann) a prep-school Goldfinger waited on by dorky Big Gulp-swilling henchmen who go by names unprintable in a family newspaper.
While Tann delivers an addictive performance as the Squirt-chugging villain, the subplot is far too cutesy for its own good. By the time we've encountered pirates, a schlocky cross-dressing ruse and a "Weekend at Bernie's" reference, it's hard to keep caring what fate befalls our hero. The more the plot twists, the less authentic Bradley's plight seems.
The stakes should be high when Bradley and his pals go on the lam (they are desperate to escape into French Canada for some reason), but there's little sense of anything at risk. So the story quickly descends into road-trip-meets-bromance territory, which is disappointing. The tender scenes of BFF tug-of-war between Bradley and his sidekick Mikey (Chad Goodridge) are heartwarming at first, but the love triangle with Loretta seems forced, and the politics of the tribe are always more interesting than their interactions with the adult world.
It's a pity that the giddiness the play creates, the high that comes with LeFranc's headlong rush into youth culture, grows thin over the show's running time.
A sense of sincerity needs to ground this picaresque romp, otherwise the narrative can seem like an overstuffed pastiche of broad pop culture winks. While director Lila Neugebauer has a gift for summoning an atmosphere of emotional candor (particularly in the confrontations between Bradley and his long-suffering mom), the pacing works against the audience's desire to root for Bradley and his chums. The three-act structure feels too epic for the scope of the story here.
The most perplexing aspects about the piece, which begins as a fantasy but ends as a family drama, are the transitions. The action floats in and out of reality, given the vividness of Bradley's imagination. As the tale deepens, we sense that there is more to Bradley's longing for a super-duper origin story than meets the eye. But the segues are jarring, and the second act drags on terribly. On opening night, there were a few technical glitches that dissipated the momentum as well.
To be fair, there were also some lovely bits of whimsy, such as Bradley's fists-of-fury smackdown against himself (gracefully performed by King) and the insanely intricate secret handshake that binds Bradley and Mikey in playground solidarity against the rich kids and goons.
Make no mistake, LeFranc definitely whets the appetite for a cheeky exploration of the power of myth, the stories we tell ourselves to get through life, but "Troublemaker" hasn't come into its own yet.
By Dan LeFranc, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Through: Feb. 3
Where: Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, two intermissions
Tickets: $29-$77 (subject to change), 510-647-2929. www.berkeleyrep.org