The playful mixture of fantasy superheroics and real-world teen angst that floated culty graphic-novel-derived films “Kick-Ass” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” translates more unevenly to the stage in Dan LeFranc’s “Troublemaker.” There’s a lot to like in this ornately slangified, high-energy tale of a 12-year-old Rhode Island boy’s none-too-successful attempts to escape everyday problems with semi-imaginary “adventures.” But giddy style and middleweight content both feel stretched pretty thin during the course of a three-act, nearly three hour evening in need of tighter construction and perhaps a smaller venue than its Berkeley Rep premiere production offers.
Bradley Boatright (Gabriel King) isn’t a “bad” kid, but he’s increasingly getting in trouble at school and elsewhere, to the dismay of single mother Patricia (Jennifer Regan). The suspicion that she might be having some sort of relationship with the father (Thomas Ray Ryan) of his archenemy Jake Miller (Robbie Tann) — a manically laughing classmate with sidekicks called A-Hole #1 (Matt Bradley) and #2 (Ben Mehl) — is enough to send him over the edge.
Threatened with a spell at a juvenile correctional facility, he decides he’ll run away to “French Canada,” aided by best friend Mikey Minkle (Chad Goodridge) and junior tough chick Loretta Beretta (Jeanna Phillips). On their trail are various adult minders including a Lotte Lenya-like mistress of Teutonic punitary discipline (Regan again) and her own ex-runaway flunky (Danny Scheie).
Rebelling against everything in general and nothing in particular, Bradley is going through one of those phases in which it makes most sense simply to blame the parent trying to reign in his “out of control” behavior. Lack of a father figure is “the most crucial part of my origin story,” as he puts it, Dad having apparently died in a car accident long ago. But it turns out that isn’t entirely true, and a somewhat flat third-act revelation is required to bring our hero back down to Earth.
The faux cussing and skewed word usage LeFranc lends his young characters — the grownups speak plain sober English — are amusing, as is their imaginary-world bravado. Though copies of “Kick-Ass,” “Watchmen” and other touchstones are duly on sale in the lobby for further research, you really don’t need much acquaintance with this generation’s video games, comic books, etc. to enjoy the script’s goofy riffing. But while its tone may be novel on stage, none of this is original enough to sustain a play whose energy sometimes flags and whose gist is hardly weighty or complicated enough to merit such attenuated treatment. Upending the usual superhero logic, “Troublemaker” would probably pack more punch if it took up less space, in both physical and temporal terms.
Lila Neugebauer’s production gets good mileage from all the performers, though despite the outlandishness of much material, the most effective moments are often quieter, naturalistic ones featuring Regan’s exasperated mom. Paloma Young’s witty costumes and Jake Rodriguez’s busy sound design are highlights; Kris Stone’s gray slab of a set is somewhat disappointing, though the incorporation of a turntable for “chase” scenes is inspired.