Bradley Chalkers excels at failure. Sprawled in the last seat in the last row of Mrs. Ebbel's fifth-grade class, he scribbles on test papers, sharpens pencils into dust and litters the floor around his desk with trash. In his spare time, he manufactures lies to keep his parents, teachers and classmates at a comfortable (for him) arm's length.
Bradley, the anti-hero of Louis Sachar's novel for young people "There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom," is up to his old tricks again, only this time he's doing it on stage in a play Sachar created from his popular book.
The show, presented by the Laguna Playhouse Youth Theatre, is a chapter-by-chapter recreation of the book that should engage school-age children but, like Bradley, tends to keep observers at arm's length. It's directed by Youth Theatre artistic director Joe Lauderdale and continues through Sunday at the Moulton Theater.
The play does have good intentions, and for the most part, Lauderdale's 11 cast members give it all they've got. Essentially a study in self-esteem, "Boy" follows Bradley's evolution from surly playground pariah, whose only goal seems to be alienating as many people as he can, to basically good-hearted kid. Inspired by a new friend and a school counselor, Bradley takes on the daunting task of changing not only how the world looks at him, but how he looks at himself. Sachar depicts the boy's struggles, setbacks and small triumphs with empathy; anyone can relate who has survived, or currently is in the throes of, adolescence.
Still, there's a measure of intimacy that's missing. In the book, readers get to know Bradley from the inside out. They're inside his head, from morning till night. They listen in on his musings about his peers, they look over his shoulder in class, and they're party to his play with--and his heartfelt confessions to--his collection of toy animals. And when Bradley isn't around, readers get to hear what other people have to say about him, which, as you might guess, is mostly uncomplimentary.
Sachar's script makes no attempt to recreate that, and as a result, audiences get a rather shallow view of the boy's problems and his eventual metamorphoses. Adult characters who are his major influences come off as a little cartoonish, especially Carla, the school counselor who tries her darndest to help him out of his rut even if she risks her own heart, and maybe her job, to do it.
Nearly all Sachar's primary characters from the book are accounted for in the play, including Bradley's enabling mother ("he's a good boy, really") and Jeff Fishkin, the new kid who, amazingly, wants to be his friend. Sachar runs into trouble when, in an apparent attempt to trim cast size, he combines several characters into one. Bradley's dad is a case in point, combining personality traits of the boy's nagging sister (absent from the play) with those of a disillusioned and distant dad. With a father figure like that, no wonder the kid's a jerk.
Still, Lauderdale's cast does an admirable job. Although Michelle Fincher plays Carla as a sort of over-the-top cross between Mr. Rogers and Dr. Joyce Brothers, the character seems to have a genuine empathy for Bradley. Their last scene is particularly heartwarming.
Lauderdale made a wise choice when he cast Dwight Armstrong as Bradley. Physically, the boy looks nothing like the Bradley described in the book, "the oldest and toughest-looking kid in the class." Armstrong stands nearly a head shorter than most of the other kids on stage, including the girls, but he carries Bradley's monster-sized chip on his shoulder with ease. His transitions from bad boy to bad-boy-trying-too-hard-to-be-good are just ragged enough to be believable.
Don Gruber's set aptly recreates Bradley's world, tucking his room, classroom and playground into one attractive and serviceable two-level area. Gruber's use of sliding doors to conceal and reveal the mysterious girl's bathroom of the title is a clever touch, although one can't help but wish that the girl's room looked just a little like the one Bradley imagines in the book, "carpeted in gold with pink wallpaper and red velvet toilet seats."
Costumes by Kylee Rousselot, a member of the theater's Youth Theatre Conservatory, and Lauderdale are mostly off-the-rack street clothes but there's an occasional visual jab at adult authority, like the principal's red power suit and Mrs. Ebbel's off-kilter wig. Gruber's lighting and David Edwards' sound design are equally serviceable.
* "There's a Boy in the Girl's Bathroom," the Moulton Theater, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $10 for adults; $7 for ages 4 to 13. Children under 4 will not be admitted. (714) 494-0743, Ext. 3.
Karan Benton: Mrs. Ebbel, Mrs. Verigold
Dwight Armstrong: Bradley Chalkers
Michelle Way: Colleen Verigold
Tarla Cummings: Lori Westin
Vanessa Moore: Melinda Birch
Armittai Steindler: Robbie
Nicholas Sanetra: Brian
Zachary Prince: Jeff Fishkin
Tisha Bellantuoni: Mrs. Chalkers, Mrs. Nathan
Terry Christopher: Mr. Chalkers, Mr. Verigold
Michelle Fincher: Carla Davis
A Laguna Playhouse Youth Theater production based on the book of the same title by Louis Sachar. Adapted by Louis Sachar. Directed by Joe Lauderdale. Set and lighting design: Don Gruber. Costume design: Kylee Rousselot and Joe Lauderdale. Sound design: David Edward. Stage managers: Grant Ginder, Jamie Stahl and Christine Quiring.