James Lecesne’s one-man show delivers just what it promises….a lot of laughs and a few tears as well.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, written and performed by James Lecesne. Directed by Tony Speciale. Original music by Duncan Sheik. At the Westside Theatre, 407 West 43rd Street, Manhattan, New York, through October 4.
By Paul Dervis
An unusual blend of drama, comedy, and cabaret, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey reflects the expansive mind and talent of writer/performer James Lecesne. Given the uncertainty of its genre, this one-man show has to navigate plenty of dramaturgical bumps in the road, but in the end it delivers just what it promises….a lot of laughs and a few tears as well.
Billing himself as an “actor, writer, storyteller,’ Lecesne won an Academy Award back in 1995 for Best Live Action Short for a film he wrote called Trevor. It was based on a story in another of his one-man plays, Word of Mouth, and it too was a prize winner, picking up that season’s Drama Desk Award.
Not content to simply express his activism through his art, Lecesne founded The Trevor Project, the first 24 hour crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in the country. He also has extensive Off-Boadway credits to his name; he made his Broadway debut in 2012, appearing in The Best Man with James Earl Jones and Angela Lansbury.
But what about the play?
Leonard is missing. The teen is not only openly gay, but is alien in a number of different ways to the conservative, close-minded townsfolk in his New Jersey Shore community. He has no family to speak of, having been left on the doorstep of a beautician named Helen by her ne’er-do-well brother, who had no blood connection to the child. Leonard was, in fact, the son of that man’s former girlfriend, who left town long ago. Leonard is a pain in the ass to Phoebe, Helen’s shy and equally outcast daughter, who has to survive school bullies and other adolescent challenges.
A former detective who handled the case, Chuck DeSantis, recalls in mostly humorous, sometimes heart-wrenching ways, the search for Leonard and his eventual discovery. He interviews a dozen people who had come in contact with the boy before his mysterious disappearance: they include his effeminate acting coach who lives with rumours of pedophilia, an aging ’80s party girl who is now a customer at the salon, a kindly old watchmaker who whiled away his lonely afternoons with the odd child…and the widow of a small-time mobster who saw Leonard’s distinctive sneaker floating in the lake outside her house…and no good will come of that.
It is only in retrospect that people in the community realize how much this young man touched each of its members…and how much he will be missed.
Lecesne is clearly an accomplished performer; he holds the stage with little trouble given his boundless energy, which is remarkable for a man entering his sixties. But when Lecesne needs to become one of the show’s female characters he comes off as more of a drag queen than a three-dimensional woman. One of the issues he struggles with in the show is to evoke the inner lives of these figures. Quick to get a laugh, Lecesne more often than not backs away from his characters’ pain for the sake of a joke. This reluctance leads to a sentimentality that undercuts the potential power of a narrative that is posed to confront hard, disturbing issues.
And that is a shame. Lecesne can tell a story with professional aplomb, so this is a snappy and entertaining evening. But, buried in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, is a deeper and darker cautionary tale that is is aching to come out.
Note: I dropped by a Tuesday night workshop series run by the Times Square Playwrights Group on West 54th Street. It’s a gathering of professional writers who develop their work through the aid of union actors and talk back sessions with audience members.
Last week the workshop offered, among other readings, Vincent Bagnall’s Turn the Blue, an intimate portrait of a relationship between a father, in rapid decline after years of alcohol abuse, and his son, a man yearning to connect with this all-too-distant man. The piece pulled off the trick of being both hard-edged and lyrical. It will be interesting to see where this script has gone once it is ready for a full production.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.