Well, I saw the show ten days, ago but when James told me The New York Times was coming to review his one man show, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelky” I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll wait to get some good quotes.’ But now, I’m thinking this maybe this might have been a bad idea. How can I top the rave that he got from Charles Isherwood?
“…[this] show about the brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy should not, logically speaking, leave you beaming with joy. His is NOT one of those here’s-what-happened-to-me-and-isn’t-it-fascinating feasts of oversharing that proliferate on small stages… Mr. Lecesne has the channel-changing virtuosity to portray a hardened New Jersey detective; a withdrawn teenage girl; her abrasive but warmhearted hairdresser mom; the British proprietor of a dance-and-drama school; and at least half a dozen equally distinctive characters. Each is drawn with the precision of a fine engraving and a dollop of a great cartoonist’s comic expressionism. But Mr. Lecesne is also a writer of wit and keen observational skills, who here unfolds a dark tale that shimmers with the needling suspense you associate with the best police procedurals, or the likes of ‘Gone Girl.’”
Pretty good, right? How do you do better than that. Well, if you’re interested, I can give you some back-story. I’ve know James for a good 20+ years now and he wears MANY hats. He did a one man show (produced by Mike Nichols on Broadway, no less) where he played a 12 year-old boy who, struggling with his sexuality, tries to commit suicide. The late Randy Stone and Peggy Rajski make a brilliant documentary short called “Trevor” about the character James created, and when it debuted on TV, they needed a number for gay teens to call to get info and The Trevor Project was born. (“Trevor” won an Oscar too, btw.) In the early days, James produced shows to raise money for The Trevor Project, and occasionally I helped him out. It’s an association I’m still really proud of. They do great work. In the intervening years, James wrote a successful young adult novel, “Absolute Brightness” which he then turned into to this play:
“Several years after publishing the novel, I found myself still thinking about this story. So much had happened since then to make me aware of the problems of bullying and its effect on kids who insist on being themselves. And so I began to explore how I might tell the same story for a more adult audience, from a different point of view and on my feet in front of an audience. The first challenge became choosing which of the many characters in the novel to employ and which ones I could manage to embody. Let’s just say that the idea of portraying certain characters presented a daunting challenge – would the audience accept me, a mature male, as say a 16-year-old girl and without a touch of makeup or costume? But one thing I’ve learned from my years of experience is that nothing is more inspiring than the ability of a theater audience to make the necessary imaginative leap.”
…and boy do they ever! It is an amazing thing to behold. Here’s someone I know pretty well, and 2 minutes in, James disappears and for 90 minutes, this tale unfolds in such a captivating way as to transport you. (Yeah, I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true!) James is a Buddhist and maybe that is how he can just disappear. Actors need a healthy dose of ego to deal with the perserverence to hear “no” 20 times, before they finally hear a “yes”, but none of that ego is onstage. Not James’s anyway… the other characters are fully rendered though; ego, hubris, charm, cunning… the only person in this story we never hear from is Leonard himself. It’s a really moving story with a good finish, but I’m going to stop going on about it now. If you get a chance, go see this show. It’s just $18 and you can stick around afterward at the bar, introduce yourself and tell James that I sent you.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey“. Written and performed by James Lecesne; directed by Tony Speciale; music by Duncan Sheik; visuals by Matthew Sandager. Dixon Place. Sunday, March 1 at 6PM, and every Friday & Saturday in March at 7:30. You get ticket info here.