“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” Reviewed by Dan Berkowitz

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey chronicles the investigation into the disappearance of a young man from his small town on the New Jersey shore, and features several of the most distinct and memorable characters you’re likely to see on a Los Angeles stage this year: the gritty, no-nonsense detective who heads up the case… the warmhearted but hardboiled proprietress of the hair salon where Leonard worked… her rebellious and just-a-touch-slutty daughter… the effete and seedy impresario of the local school of drama and dance… the elderly European man who owns a watch-repair shop… the sly Mafia widow with important information… and many others.

That all these characters are portrayed, flawlessly and convincingly, by a single actor – with no change of costume or makeup – is a testament to the remarkable talents of James Lecesne, the actor, who also wrote the piece, and Tony Speciale, his director.

Leonard Pelkey was 14, and… different. Flamboyant, over the top, “too much” in the words of more than one local resident. He wore nail polish and eye shadow and Capri pants (“the name comes from ‘capricious’”) in the dead of winter. He worked at the salon and dispensed hair and fashion tips to the local women, many of whom were old enough to be his grandmother – but who all took his advice. His signature creation was a pair of “platform sneakers”: he bought six pairs of flip-flops, in six rainbow colors, glued the soles together and then to the bottom of his high-tops. This personal fashion statement may have made the 5’4” boy walk taller, but unfortunately it also made him a bigger target for the local bullies.

James Lecesne. Photo by Matthew Murphy

James Lecesne. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Leonard’s disappearance isn’t a good sign, and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to reveal that, indeed, the worst has happened. While the show is structured much like a “whodunit,” it’s also, more crucially, a “who-was-he”? Though Leonard himself never appears, by the end of the play he’s a palpable presence. He may have been young and just beginning his journey through life, but he affected the townsfolk more than people many times his age: so strong was his influence on their lives that their memories of him conjure him up for us to know.

Mr. Lecesne’s writing is lean and sinewy – there’s not an ounce of fat in it – yet it’s lavish in its detail, with every character and moment fully fleshed. His astonishing performance is equally tight and disciplined, but infused with a generosity of spirit that awards full portion of humanity to even the most potentially ridiculous or unsympathetic characters. His laser-like focus and attention to physical detail makes it possible for him to play the wide range of people – old, young, male, female – utterly realistically: during the hairstylist’s address to the court late in the play, I could have sworn he was wearing lipstick, even though I knew it was impossible.

Speaking of that speech, it’s one of two stunning soliloquies in the play – the other is one delivered at Leonard’s grave by Phoebe – which illustrate best the clear-eyed quality of the writing and the performance. Mr. Lecesne refuses to descend to the maudlin, to beg for pity, to make anyone into a “victim.” He keeps the focus on the light – the absolute brightness – that Leonard brought into the lives of those who knew him.

James Lecesne. Photo by Matthew Murphy

James Lecesne. Photo by Matthew Murphy

Mr. Speciale’s direction matches the spareness and discipline of Mr. Lecesne’s writing and acting: the staging is simple and direct, the set by Jo Winiarski just a table with a handful of props, a couple of places to sit, and a backdrop featuring occasional evocative projections designed by Aaron Rhyne. The lights, by Matt Richards, are also simple, for the most part, with a few dramatic touches made all the more effective for their rareness. The sound, by Christian Frederickson, and original music by Duncan Sheik, also make valuable contributions to the mood.

I first saw The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey in New York last summer, in a small, almost claustrophobic theatre. I wondered how it would fare in the much larger Kirk Douglas, but I needn’t have worried. Mr. Lecesne keeps his personal connection with the audience, and manages simultaneously to maintain intimacy while filling the space. If anything, the performance is deeper and sharper — or perhaps it’s that, on second viewing, one appreciates it even more.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, is, in a sense, a continuation of the work Mr. Lecesne began some years ago when he wrote the screenplay for Trevor, the Academy Award winning short film about a gay teen who felt his “difference” left him no choice but to kill himself. Subsequently, Mr. Lecesne and the film’s producer and director formed The Trevor Project (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/), the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth.

Trevor came through his crisis, and at the end of the film, makes the decision to survive, at least until tomorrow. Leonard was denied the same choice, but, as limned by Mr. Lecesne, his radiance lives on through the people he touched. The lesson, if you will, is that being oneself can have a profound effect on others – and if you won’t consider yourself a victim, in the end you won’t be, no matter what happens.

It’s an extraordinary show, technically dazzling and tremendously moving. Go.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Written and performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale

Through January 31

Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd
Culver City, CA 90232
Tickets: 213-972-4488 or http://absolutebrightnessplay.com


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