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There’s so much to admire about The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey that one practically feels guilty for not liking it more. James Lecesne‘s solo play about the disappearance of a 14-year-old boy is clearly a labor of love, and the writer-actor, playing nearly a dozen characters, delivers a tour-de-force performance. But for all its good intentions, the piece — based on Lecesne’s young adult novel and featuring original music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) — feels thin and formulaic.
Lecesne, the author of the Oscar-winning 1994 short film Trevor, about a suicidal gay teenager, also is the co-founder of The Trevor Project, a crisis intervention program for LGBTQ youth. His affinity for his subject matter shines through in this piece, which is surprisingly humorous given its dark underpinnings.
The story is told through the perspective of Chuck DeSantis, a hard-boiled detective in a small Jersey shore town. “This is the case that put us on the Mapquest,” he informs us early on, before relating how he was informed of Leonard’s disappearance by his guardian Ellen, the 40-something proprietor of the local beauty salon. Although Leonard has only been missing for “19 hours, 47 minutes,” she’s worried that he might have been harmed for his apparent gayness.
Using quicksilver transformations of voice and physicality, Lecesne plays Ellen as well as a multitude of characters including her teenage daughter; an elderly German shopkeeper; a mobster’s widow; a video-playing teenage boy; and the fey British owner of the town’s school of drama and dance, who says of Leonard, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.”
Although the culprit is eventually found, the play is not so much about solving the crime, which is given perfunctory treatment, as about the effect that the perpetually sunny youth had on others, including the detective who never actually met him. Although we only see a brief, blurry image of Leonard projected on a screen, he emerges as a vivid character, typified by his self-made rainbow-colored platform sneakers constructed out of the glued-together bottoms of flip-flops.
It’s a touching tale, but the hyper-theatrical manner in which it’s presented inevitably places more emphasis on the performer than on the story. The characterizations border on the stereotypical and the one-liners too often feel forced, giving the evening the feel of an elongated sketch.
Still, the show’s message of tolerance is important and, unfortunately, all too relevant at a time when hate crimes still occur with frightening frequency. Through its illuminating lesson, at least, Leonard Pelkey shines brightly.
Writer-performer: James Lecesne
Director: Tony Speciale
Set designer: Jo Winiarski
Lighting designer: Matt Richards
Sound designer: Christian Frederickson
Projection designer: Aaron Rhyne
Music: Duncan Sheik
Presented by Darren Bagert, Daryl Roth, Jane Dubin, Curtis Forsythe, Michael Mayer, Diane Procter, Seaview Productions, Minerva Productions/Joshua Goodman
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