Middle-School Angst So Funny That It Hurts: ‘Troublemaker’ at the Berkeley Rep

Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in "Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright" at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of kevinberne.com).
Gabriel King (left), Chad Goodridge and Jeanna Phillips in “Troublemaker, or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright” at the Berkeley Rep (photo courtesy of kevinberne.com).

Troublemaker or The Freakin Kick-A Adventures of Bradley Boatright, the hilarious play from Dan LeFranc that made its world premiere in January at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, depicts the misadventures of its 12-year-old protagonist through comic-book action and snappy dialogue. But the comic play, directed by Lila Neugebauer, also carries a sobering, underlying message about the world an entire generation of American children inhabits.

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Bradley Boatright is a middle-school kid (played by Gabriel King, one of the many actors in the production playing much younger roles) who splits his days between battles with his nemesis Jake Miller (Robbie Tann) and protecting his single mother from the stream of suitors trying to encroach upon their existence. Bradley’s father died, we’re told, saving his son and spouse from a horrific car accident, an act Bradley deems as “the most crucial part of my origin story.” But when his mother’s personal life broaches his problems with Jake, Bradley begins causing trouble at school, much to the chagrin of his intellectual sidekick Mikey (Chad Goodridge). The troublemaking threatens to send Bradley to a reform school the kids have labeled “Foggerhorn Academy.” Rather than face his problems with his mother, Bradley and Mikey attempt an escape to French Canada.

The first two acts of the play are loaded with laugh-out-load moments, many of them based on LeFranc’s inventive, euphemistic language. For Bradley and his friends, the world is filled with gamers, lamers, freakin a-holes and crotches (apparently, the most vile insult of all). Bradley’s concern over whether his mother is going to “boyfriend-girlfriend” with Jake’s father captures what pre-teen angst is about: that the world is much harder for them than for adults. The idea is perhaps best characterized by Mikey’s offense at being Bradley’s black sidekick, and their ensuing dialogue about racism, reverse racism, and reverse-reverse racism while playing video games (though the mysteries of the opposite sex still elude the male characters in comical fashion). The naivety of these precocious boys is by itself funny, but the humor is multiplied such by the actors’ perfect delivery of LeFranc’s lines that the audience at one show continued laughing into the intermission.

The third act of LeFranc’s wild ride, though, sees the romp turn into a painful examination of what it means that single-parent households are now the new normal. Beginning with a series of rapid-fire scenes, Bradley is forced to address his emotions about his mother and father, an undertaking that reaches its emotional crescendo when the truth about his “origin story” is revealed. As the play reaches its conclusion, it’s tough not to keep smiling because of the past couple of uproarious hours. Despite the laughs, these characters growing up in blue-collar Rhode Island represent an entire generation of single-parent children growing up in a challenging environment, one that leaves some of them turning to trouble. It’s a heavy message, and to the credit of LeFranc and the Berkeley Rep’s production of his play, it’s examined thoughtfully and hilariously.

Troublemaker runs till this Sunday at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, in Berkeley. For more information, go here.

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