Chances are writer-performer James Lecesne will not leap down from the stage and slap you around for being unmoved by “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” his earnest one-man show lamenting the death of a sensitive gay teenager who was murdered for being sensitive and gay. But the threat of emotional blackmail still hangs over this sentimental play, in which the scribe and solo performer plays the multiple roles of the residents of the little New Jersey town where Leonard lived.
Lecesne comes by his bleeding heart honorably. He wrote the screenplay for “Trevor,” a short film about a troubled youth that not only won an Academy Award in 1995 but also launched The Trevor Project, a national suicide and crisis intervention network for at-risk LGBTQ kids. “After the Storm,” his documentary film about a group of teens who survived Hurricane Katrina, led to a foundation providing support to New Orleans community centers that work with young people.
His 2008 novel, “Absolute Brightness,” on which this show is based, produced Leonard Pelkey, a 14-year-old boy who has gone missing and will eventually turn up dead — murdered. The premise of the piece is that no one in this Jersey Shore town properly appreciated this unabashedly out-there youth — who wore makeup and constructed a wild pair of platform sneakers by gluing a half-dozen colorful flip-flops together — until he was no longer around.
The scribe constructs his character study from the thoughtful recollections of Leonard’s neighbors, the half-dozen or so who share them with Chuck DeSantis, the local detective investigating the case. As written and performed by Lecesne, he’s a brash version of the hard-boiled detectives in genre fiction.
The friends and neighbors DeSantis interviews are also broadly drawn. Spinning in and out of character, Lecesne adopts a distinctive stance and voice, rather than costumes and props, to keep someone like Leonard’s earthy aunt Helen, who raises the alarm when Leonard goes missing, distinct from her 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who offers the most succinct description of the missing youth. (“Leonard is totally weird.”)
Further testimonials are extracted from characters like an old jeweler who repairs clocks and watches (“Time was when all clocks had faces”) and the effete owner of the drama school who marvels at Leonard’s expressive use of “jazz hands.” Not all of these characters are convincing, but what they have to say about Leonard is very interesting, indeed.
In one way or another, they all admired his flamboyant artistic style and his insistence on being true to himself and proud of it. Even the tough boys who bullied him show some respect for his courage. In that, they seem to reflect America’s changing attitudes toward their LGBTQ neighbors. (Excepting, of course, the person who killed him.) Although we never actually meet Leonard but come to know him from the fond memories of his neighbors, he seems very much alive.