The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey, James Lecesne’s hilarious, touching stage adaptation of his 2008 novel has arrived as a guest production at the Kirk Douglas Theatre only months after generating plenty of well-earned off-Broadway buzz for its author-performer.
Unlike Lecesne’s novel Absolute Brightness, whose first third or so had us getting to know flamboyant fourteen-year-old Leonard as he set about remaking a town full of Jersey Shorsians à la Edward Scissorhands, albeit with a more fabulously gay flair, The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey begins straight off with Leonard’s disappearance, then goes on to follow hard-boiled Jersey police detective Chuck DeSantis’s recollections of the ensuing investigation.
If compacting a 300-page novel into a 70-minute play seems already a daunting task, what makes Lecesne’s achievement something quite out of the ordinary is that it is the playwright himself who brings to life each and every one of the Jerseyites whose lives Leonard touched. They include:
• Tough-gal beauty shop owner Ellen Hertle, the relative by marriage with whom Leonard had been living before going missing
• Ellen’s awkward, introverted teenage daughter Phoebe, who found in Leonard a kindred spirit
• Buddy Howard, the posh Brit expat for whom Leonard became the jazz-hands virtuoso most drama/dance school directors only dream of discovering
• German clock repairman Otto Beckerman, given a second chance at unconditional love by the unapologetically gay Leonard
• Chain-smoking beauty shop customer Marion Tochterman, who got taught a thing or two about the importance of owning a little black dress.
• Gloria Salzano, a mob widow who discovers a crucial piece of evidence in the Leonard Pelkey case
Less impressed by Leonard’s particular gifts were the school bullies (most significantly teen gamer Travis Lembeck) who did their best to make the girly boy’s life a living hell but could not stop him from being himself because if that were to happen, “the terrorists would win.”
All of these characters Lecesne portrays in a series of interlocking performances so vividly rendered, you may find yourself forgetting it’s a single actor embodying each character, male and female, gay and straight, all without a single costume change save a couple pairs of glasses.
Some may question The Disappearance Of Leonard Pelkey’s relevance in these days of ever increasing LGBT acceptance, while others might object to seeing yet another tragic gay hero designed to elicit sympathy and support from those who might still be on the fence about LBGT issues.
Still, with hardly a day going by without a report of a yet another gay bashing or teen suicide, it may be a good long while before a play like Lecesne’s is passé, and it’s hard to imagine anyone with a heart not being moved and inspired by Leonard’s life while thoroughly enjoying the multitalented Lecesne’s multiple takes on it.
Director Tony Speciale shares credit with Lecesne for making The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey the magically theatrical experience it is, aided by the production’s topnotch New York design team.
Scenic designer Jo Winiarski’s detective office set gets transformed into multiple additional locales by Aaron Rhyne’s often stunning projections, with Matthew Saddler’s whimsical animation and photography, Matt Richard’s striking lighting, Christian Frederickson’s terrific sound design (enhanced by Duncan Sheik’s original music), and Paul Marlow’s clothing all adding up to a Grade A production design.
Casting is by Calleri Casting. Hannah Woodward is production stage manager. Production Core is production supervisor.
Hilarious, heartbreaking, and ultimately uplifting, James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness Of Leonard Pelkey more than lives up to the hype that has accompanied it from the East Coast to Culver City.
Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd, Culver City.
January 14, 2106
Photos: Matthew Murphy