The actor-playwright James Lescene has a special way of relating to young people. Students in the Hartford Stage’s Project Transform for teenagers this past spring had a unique opportunity to experience his ability to connect with young adults and understand their issues as he guided them through the creation of a theater piece over eight weekends that reflected their issues and concerns.
Lescene is, after all, one of the founders of the Trevor Project, the only national 24/7 hotline for LBGT youth as well as the author of one of the most popular young adult books in recent years, “Absolute Brightness.” As part of his work with the students in Hartford, he invited them to New York to see an off-off Broadway production of the one-person play he wrote and stars in, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” based on his YA novel.
Now a commercial producing team is behind an off-Broadway mounting of the work, at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street in Manhattan, where it is currently booking through October 6. Under the direction of Tony Speciale, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is a gripping, affirming tour de force for Lescene, who morphs into a variety of characters, male and female alike, with just a twist of the head or the furrow of an eyebrow or the repositioning of his body, along with a change of voice or accent.
That he accomplishes many of these changes in just a matter of seconds is one of the many impressive achievements that Lescene reaches over the course of this one-act, 80-minute production. Most significantly is the unyielding compassion he maintains for the title character, 14-year old Leonard Pelkey, who as the play opens, is reported missing by Ellen, the owner of a local hair salon, and her 16-year old daughter, Phoebe, with whom Leonard lived.
Although Lescene never slips into the character of Leonard, the playwright enables his audience to get to know the young man quite well by the end of the evening, as the various residents of the New Jersey town share their observations as the inquiry into his disappearance continues. For Leonard is one unique, unforgettable fellow. Despite the problems he has encountered in his young life, being orphaned by his single mother at age 12 and subject to constant bullying in school, he was openly flamboyant, wearing a home-made pair of rainbow-heeled sneakers or putting on eye shadow.
As Phoebe describes Leonard, he could do “a dead-on impression of Julie Andrews, totally dance like Britney Spears. He could play a mean hand of poker. And he made the most delicious pancakes I ever tasted. He knew how to dress a salad and also all the women of this town.” Buddy Howard, the director of the local community theater, reports that “in all things, Leonard tends toward the theatrical. I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.” And one of the regulars at the salon explains that “he saw us not as we were,but as we hoped to be. It was like a superpower that he had.”
Lescene holds the plot together through the narration of Chuck DeSantis, a middle-aged, veteran Jersey detective, who interviews the various people in Leonard’s life as he pursues his investigation. Lescene is quite believable in whatever guise he inhabits and manages to keep each of this many characters distinct. From adopting the German accent of an aging watchmaker to the capturing the speech patterns of a Mafia widow, from depicting the oxygen-depleting conversations of the salon owner to effortlessly seguing into a video game obsessed teenager, Lescene ultimately creates an entire community who, as it turns out, were remarkably impacted by young Leonard.
It is also heavily suggested that Leonard was probably gay—at least that is what Phoebe claims, although her mother says it was never confirmed. Viewing the case as a potential hate crime, DeSantis comes to appreciate Leonard’s resilience, just one of the many changes in his life that this Shakespeare-quoting detective will experience over the course of the play.
But don’t get me wrong. “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is anything but a bleak work. It is frequently laugh out loud funny and the portrait it paints of people who learned not only to accept Leonard, but to depend upon him and love him, is thrilling. Yes, you may shed a tear or two at various points during the production, but any heartbreak will be countered by something endearing or humorous.
Director Speciale has helped Lescene create differentiated movements and postures for each of the characters the actor-playwright portrays so that the production retains its freshness as it progresses. Jo Winiarski has provided set design that includes a table which contains all the various exhibits that are accumulated over the course of the investigation, including Leonard’s rainbow shoes and a prized watch that his late mother gave to him, which are each individually projected onto the back of the set as DeSantis reveals the role of each one in finding out what actually happened to Leonard. Matt Richard’s lighting is integral to contributing to the sense of place the audience feels as the story bounces around the town, from the police department to a lake at the edge of town, or from a busy hair salon to a costume shop where Leonard once determined that he needed fairy wings in order to appropriately play Ariel in a local production of “The Tempest.”
Throughout one can see the essential points that Lescene had wanted to stress first in his novel and now in this play. His triumphant message, one that is echoed by nearly all the characters at the work’s denouement, is to encourage young people to be honest with themselves and true to their identities and get the rest of society to be more understanding and in fact be proactive in assuring a safe and positive environment for these kids. It’s easy to see why Lescene was a great choice to lead the Hartford Stage’s student program and to understand why he jumped at the opportunity.
For information on “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” visit the official website at www.absolutebrightnessplay.com. For tickets, call Telecharge at 212.239.6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.