James Lecesne in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” his solo show based on his young adult novel and directed by Tony Speciale. | PETER YESLEY
After seeing “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” James Lecesne’s gripping solo show recounting the tragic disappearance of a flamboyant gay teen in a tiny Jersey Shore town, I was compelled to research the case online. The details of the incident and characters were portrayed so vividly, I was convinced the story was real, though, come to think of it, I didn’t recall any media coverage.
Turns out it’s a work of fiction. The richly articulated piece is actually based on Lecesne’s successful young adult novel, “Absolute Brightness,” published a few years back.
Under the thoughtful direction of Tony Speciale, the charismatic Lecesne, who has written and performed other solo shows, like “Word of Mouth,” slips effortlessly among an assortment of oddball, deeply etched personas.
James Lecesne brings his novel about a gay teen gone missing vividly to life
First we meet a gruff, hard-boiled detective named Chuck who heads the investigation. He’s a bit of an anomaly himself — one minute he refers to a beautiful woman as a “dame,” the next he’s quoting Shakespeare. Then Lecesne shifts to Ellen, the 14-year-old boy’s reluctant guardian (his parents are long gone) who runs a beauty salon, and then to Phoebe, her smartass daughter.
We also meet a swishy drama teacher named Buddy, a gossipy woman with binoculars watching the police drag the lake, a kindly proprietor of a clock repair shop, and a young brute who bullied Leonard, among other locals.
Characters are skillfully delineated with accents, facial contortions, gestures, and postures — and the occasional pair of glasses. No wigs or costume changes required.
If the mystery of Leonard’s vanishing drives the plot, it’s the impact of his absence that’s truly compelling. As described by admiring townsfolk, the boy was hyper-creative and stubborn and a little too in-your-face. After all, he was prone to wearing pink and green plaid Capri pants and dancing like Britney Spears. Yet he was also courageous and a “luminous force of nature.” All the more poignant that his light was not fully appreciated until he was gone.
Although Buddy praises Leonard’s “theatrical” behavior, he worries it makes the boy a target. “I’m afraid out and about they take a dimmer view of his brighter qualities,” he laments.
Not surprisingly, Leonard refused to “tone it down.” He would even serve up fashion tips to the biddies in the beauty salon and they were grateful for it. One woman he befriended was uneasy about his willfulness. “He told me if he stopped being himself then the terrorists would win,” she said.
It’s no surprise that, in tribute to the lost boy, detective Chuck quotes Hamlet: “This above all— to thine own self be true.”
Was it a hate crime or a case of “gay panic” or suicide? Soon, the mystery of what happened to Leonard is solved, though the question of why is not fully answered.
The script is sharp and stimulating. Granted, there are passages that feel melodramatic, even didactic. But remember, the piece is based on a story largely geared to young adults.
Lecesne, as it happens, is no stranger to teen trauma. He is co-founder of the Trevor Project, the leading national group focused on suicide prevention and awareness among LGBTQ youth. His groundbreaking short film, “Trevor,” about a troubled gay teen, won an Oscar in 1995. And while Leonard Pelkey may not be a real person, he is a stand-in for the countless teens who were, or still are, mercilessly bullied and facing a tragic end for daring to be different.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” now playing at Dixon Place, the exceptional lab for performing and literary artists, features moody incidental music from none other than Duncan Sheik, who scored “Spring Awakening.” The drama is enhanced with projected images (by Matthew Sandager) of key items like Leonard’s handcrafted rainbow-hued platform sneakers, a schoolbag, and an antique pocket watch.
There’s even a shot of Leonard himself, except, as taken by Phoebe on her cell phone, it is blurry — we can only make out a hint of blond hair and blue eyes. With the aid of the supremely gifted Lecesne, we begin to fill in the portrait in our minds until it becomes a fully high-res, heart-wrenching image.
THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY | Dixon Place, 161a Chrystie St., btwn. Rivington & Delancey Sts. | Through Mar. 28: schedule varies | $18 at dixonplace.org or 212-219-0736 | Eighty mins., no intermission