Even in fictional death, the light from Leonard Pelkey is a mighty beam. James Lecesne is now in residence at the Westside Theatre Downstairs with his one-person show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, and judging by the audience’s reaction to his tale, he may be there for some time.
His narrator, Chuck, is the local cop on whom the disappearance of 14 year-old Leonard Pelkey was dumped over a decade ago. Leonard was a flamboyant teenager who made his own platform sneakers and danced to the tune of his own marching band. His disappearance does not smell right to Chuck who begins an investigation that takes us into the lives of a cross section of the unnamed Jersey Shore town.
Lecesne is a gifted and precise character actor and storyteller. He has mastered the trick of giving each character a simple gesture so that we are never uncertain as to which of the 8 characters he is giving to us. And give he does. Each of these characters divulges more than they realize as they reveal how they knew Leonard. Beginning with his “Aunt” Ellen – Leonard was her brother’s ex-girlfriend’s son. Girlfriend deceased and brother an idiot – hence Leonard came to live with Ellen and her daughter Phoebe. Ellen is initially the least satisfying of Lecesne’s portrayals, coming across more as a caricature than the stunning doll she is supposed to be, although she has some terrific lines and becomes more fully realized as the evening progresses. Phoebe, one the other hand is seamless. She is what we could categorize as mousy – except for the fact that she sees and hears e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. Sensing that Chuck is actually interested, Phoebe unloads. Don’t mind my mom. She’s just a local beauty-stylist slash control-freak. Basically harmless. Unless you’re her daughter. And then, Tah-Dah.
Buddy the Brit, who runs the local drama school and surprises us by mentioning an actual wife, is concerned that he might be a suspect. There was some misunderstanding earlier about his relationship to his charges. Oh, yes. I believe here in this country you refer to them as “pedophiles.” As if it’s all done on foot.
Gloria, a mob widow whose husband died of a heart attack, and who made certain she never knew the details of what he did – wonders if the Pope will do away with Hell. And if he does what will happen to the people who never DID anything except be silent. Gloria lives on a lake, and it is she who reports seeing one of the famous sneakers. Leonard’s body is not far behind.
Everyone – or nearly everyone – was touched by Leonard. He knew when someone’s lipstick was passé. He gave beauty tips and encouragement to the women all over town. When people warned him to “tone it down” he said that if he did, the terrorists would win. How do you argue with that, says Marion, Ellen’s chain-smoking friend. People are always saying — everything happens for a reason. I don’t believe it. But I do believe you have to find a reason for everything that happens.
Which is what Chuck is all about. This leads him to Otto, the proprietor of the local repair shop where Leonard would hide when the other boys were chasing him. Here Chuck finds a book Leonard left behind with the names of his potential attackers. The dots are soon connected with some help from characters we have already met. The murderer is found – and Ellen gets the final word.
What we in the audience do not get, however, is our own look at the killer and his defense team who are referred to as assholes of the first degree because of their line of defense – which was of course to impugn Leonard’s character. This is an enormous missing element, because this leaves the story without a bad guy against which we measure the good guy. The murderer never takes the stand. We never find out the why, and Lecesne is a good enough actor to take us into that very dark corner – too bad he didn’t.
As it is, we are left to mourn a boy who never existed in real life, but whose myth reaches in and grabs us in that unadorned and simple way teenagers can do. Leonard believed that people were connected by rays of light and that the clearer the love, the more intense the light. It pulsed, and if you looked carefully you could see these beams spreading all over the planet. He made an entire town rethink their point of view, and most of them didn’t realize it until they were mourning over a past they overlooked and a future that Leonard would never have.
In the end it is Chuck who encourages us to take a little from that Absoulte Brightness and shine a light of our own. We will be Leonard’s bequest by living lives in which we pay attention to our chums and value the moments we share. Not a bad way to leave a show.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey – written and performed by James Lecesne; Directed by Tony Speciale
Set by Joe Winiarski, Lights by Matt Richards, Sound by Christian Frederickson, Production Design by Aaron Rhyne.
Westside Theatre Downstairs, 407 West 43rd Street, (between 9th & 10th Avenues). New York, NY 10036. Tickets $85.