A 14-year-old boy is reported missing, and eventually found dead. Chuck DeSantis, who worked the case as a tough-talking detective “in a half-ass town down the Jersey shore,” begins to tell us the story as if it’s a murder mystery, a film noir on stage (“The dark side is my beat.”)
But “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” which has opened at the Westside Theater, is not really a murder mystery, and that’s part of its appeal. It is, above all, a showcase for the impressive theatrical talents of James Lecesne, who portrays the detective and eight other characters, male and female, young and old. He does this without props or a change of costumes — just precise, spot-on gestures; a shift in accent and manner of speech.
“Leonard Pelkey” is also a play written by Lecesne to promote a cause, one with which he has been associated for decades.
In 1994, Lecesne wrote a short movie entitled “Trevor”, which told the story of a 13-year-old gay boy who tries to commit suicide because his friends reject him. The movie won an Academy Award, and spawned The Trevor Project, a national suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth.
“Leonard Pelkey” is also about a gay teenager, one who wore Capri pants, nail polish and mascara, and turned his sneakers into rainbow platform shoes. Yes, as it turns out, he is the victim of a hate crime. But the primary purpose of Lecesne’s play is less about Leonard’s death and more about his life – the way this obvious oddball touched so many people.
While the detective investigates Leonard’s disappearance and then his death, we learn:
Leonard knew more about beauty products than his adoptive aunt Ellen, the owner of a beauty salon
he played leads in the community theater productions put on by Buddy, the British-born proprietor of Buddy Howard’s School of Drama and Dance (“I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.”)
the local watch repairman Otto recalls how Leonard would visit him every afternoon after school; “To see a boy like that, in this world, in my shop with no apology, this was to me a miracle” – in part because he didn’t treat his own gay son so well
Leonard’s cousin Phoebe gives a eulogy:
“Before Leonard came to live with us, he had a pretty rotten life, and even after, it wasn’t all that great. But I never met anyone more determined to make the best of every situation. When I tell you that he could make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, I mean that literally. He gave it to me for my last birthday. It was totally gross, but also kind of amazing.”
What the townspeople say about Leonard Pelkey is sweet and often funny – and the picture that emerges is of a misfit who was really something of a saint. Yes, this is sentimental and unrealistic (although not apparently to everybody; Lecesne felt compelled to tell us in a program note that Leonard is not based on an actual person.) “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is no more believable a portrait than that of the saintly Jimmy Stewart character in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Keep in mind, that’s a movie with a similar simple, sentimental message – everybody’s life has meaning and worth – that people watch every year.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Westside Theatre (407 West 43rd Street)
Written and performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale
Scenic design by Jo Winiarski, lighting design by Matt Richards, sound design by Christian Frederickson, projection design by Aaron Rhyne, original animation and photography by Matthew Sandager, costumes by Paul Marlow
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Ticket prices: $85
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is scheduled to run through October 4, 2015.