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Theatre in Review: The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey (Westside Theatre)

James Lecesne. Photo: Matthew Murphy

Why bother to hire a cast when you can get James Lecesne? In The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, he embodies most of the citizenry of a Jersey Shore town, including a hard-boiled cop, a nosy Mafia widow, a deeply confused teenage girl, and a drama teacher of ambiguous sexuality, to name a few. The theatre is filled with quick-sketch artists, but where other performers settle for line drawings, Lecesne turns out fully rounded portraits in a few minutes flat. Of course, Lecesne gets a big assist from himself, since he is also the author of the play, having adapted it from his young adult novel, Absolute Brightness. This is not a small point: Everything he writes and performs is marked by a novelist's eye for the telling detail.

The cast of characters includes Ellen Hertle, proprietor of a salon called Hair Today, who is known for her accomplished coiffures and chilling candor. Heard advising a beleaguered assistant on how to deal with a difficult customer, she snaps, "Tell her we run a full-service salon, but we're responsible for the outside of her head only." Ellen's daughter, Phoebe, is described by an onlooker as "16, going on 45....A kid really, but without the innocence you'd expect from a kid half her age. I guess you could say she'd been around the block. But not all the way." Speaking of her fraught relationship with Ellen, Phoebe says, "She's just a local beauty stylist slash control freak. Basically harmless. Unless you're her daughter. [Pointing to herself] And then....Ta-da."

One of the more exotic residents, Buddy Howard, runs the local dance-and-drama academy, along with Sally, the wife that no one can believe he has. Then again, when you're a middle-aged male whose intonation eerily mirrors Maggie Smith's and you pronounce pedophile as "pee-do-file," a wife is probably a must-have accessory on the Jersey Shore. "We've made quite a go of it, Sally and me, in more ways than one," Buddy says, leaving it to our imaginations exactly what those ways are. Still, their school is a success, even if the locals view it as a place to dump their offspring for a few hours: "We like to call ourselves the premier after-school minimum-security holding environment for the underage -- ha ha."

Also populating the play is Gloria Salzano, a widow who scans the neighborhood for birds, not to mention any tell-tale evidence that may rise up from the bottom of the nearby lake. Formerly married to the mob, she says, "God gave me two ears and only one mouth for a reason. So I can hear twice as good as I talk. Which is to say, I heard plenty." There's Otto Beckerman, an elderly watch and clock repairman, who regrets bullying his now-dead son: "When I found him downstairs in the basement dancing the ballet or wearing the lipstick or playing with his sister's dolls, I tried to shake the daylights from him. But that is the problem -- you cannot shake it. The daylight. It comes again." And there's Travis Lembeck, a teenage boy whose thuggishness doesn't disguise a certain insight. "When people go around saying stuff like 'Boys will be boys,' I think what they're really trying to say is 'Boys oughta be boys'."

Lecesne fully inhabits each of the characters, switching between them, and a couple of others, with a quicksilver efficiency that must be seen to be believed. But if I have any reservations about The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey -- and I do, a big one -- it has to do with the title character. All of the above are seen talking to Chuck DeSantis, a rough-edged, but basically decent, guy who, in middle age, is resigned to his career as a homicide and missing-persons detective, a job that is "a slow beat in a half-ass town down the Jersey Shore." Chuck is investigating the disappearance of Leonard, a whimsical 14-year-old who wore makeup, advised the local matrons on their fashion choices, and sported such outré accessories as tennis shoes with colorful platform soles made out of several layers of flip-flops. Basically abandoned by his parents, essentially friendless, raised by a guardian who hasn't the faintest idea what to make of him, his fate, when we finally learn it, is unsurprising, yet unspeakably sad.

To put it mildly, what happens to Leonard conflicts with the flavorful character comedy that makes up most of the play's running time. And the closer we get to the truth about Leonard, the more jarring the entire project seems. We are meant to see Leonard as an irresistible force for good whose willingness to be himself no matter what leaves an indelible impression on the lives of everyone he meets. Fair enough, but there's never a moment when the show stops to express any outrage that this beautiful and highly original soul has met such a terrible fate. Lecesne's intentions are the best -- and his script resonates with humanity and real insight -- but anger, real rage at the appalling way gay youths are often treated, is strangely absent. There's something a little creepy and calculated about the idea of Leonard as a kind of sacrificial lamb who must die so others can feel his goodness; he's a kind of gay version of the "magical Negro," the term invented by Spike Lee for black characters who exist only to make white characters feel better about themselves.

Such thoughts evidently didn't distress many members of the audience at the performance I attended, all of whom greeted Lecesne at the curtain call with lusty cheers. And there's no question that The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, which has been smoothly directed by Tony Speciale, is often more enjoyable than any number of attractions in town right now. (The physical production -- scenery by Jo Winiarski, lighting by Matt Richards, sound by Christian Frederickson, and projections by Aaron Rhyne -- is fairly modest but provides the necessary support.)

And yet, I left The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey feeling that it is marred by a rush toward uplift that doesn't really feel honest. Lecesne gives us so many fully realized people. What does it mean that the most important of them is seen only from a distance? -- David Barbour

(3 August 2015)

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