Written & Performed By James Lecesne; Directed by Tony Speciale
Off Off Broadway, New Play
Runs through 3.28.15
Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street
by Seth Bogner on 2.23.15
James Lecesne in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Photo by Peter Yesley.
BOTTOM LINE: James Lecesne is working hard for the money in this solo show and the fruits of his labor are sweet.
Let's suppose that all live performance can be broken down into three groups. First we have the type that demand obvious skill and talent, but fascinate because of the performer's ability to deliver them with a sense of ease (figure skating, ballet, and the vocal stylings of Audra McDonald immediately come to mind). The second group, and I would argue less captivating, are glittery and often expensive to consume, but in fact require a relatively low amount effort. Think of a pop star performing with a prerecorded vocal track while swinging over the Super Bowl. The third group is populated by gymnasts, tap dancers, and Idina Menzel. For their work to soar these performers use every ounce of energy and talent at their disposal and make no bones about it. In other words, they work their asses off and it shows. Perhaps the best example of this is the multiple character solo play, as evident from the performance marathon currently being run by James Lecesne at Dixon Place. It is because of his conspicuous focus, athleticism, and talent that The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey reaps such extraordinary rewards.
As those of us who trolled the classrooms of high school forensics (speech and debate) tournaments can attest, there is nothing more spirit crushing than being placed in a round with a fellow O.C. (original comedy) competitor blessed with the gift of character pops. It takes a certain type of performer with not only the imagination to embody multiple characters within a narrative, but also the mind-numbing focus to detail required to make them clean and understandable for the audience. What elevates Lecesne's performance far above our adolescent efforts is his ability to imbue each of his characters with a sense of humanity. These are not broad impersonations from a stand-up routine, but living breathing souls defined not just by voice type or dialect, but by their wholly unique sense self and world view. He makes great use of his agile face and voice to virtually morph (at dizzying speed) before our eyes. His performance is all the more stirring due to the affection he has for his cast. Not only is he employing them to tell the story, but he is giving them a chance to be heard, often giving voice to quiet observers who are relishing the rare opportunity to share.
As written by Lecesne and directed by Tony Speciale, the play follows a humble detective searching for clues in the missing person case of Leonard Pelkey, the type of colorful gay teenager wise beyond his years and loose-lipped with his opinions. His disappearance leads the detective to interview the many townspeople who crossed his path and were often surprisingly touched by his distinct flare. The plot is suspenseful on its own, but it's the way that the people of the town reflect on their interactions with Leonard and give surprising insight into the human experience that lingers long after the case is solved.
With simple and effective visual design by Matthew Sandager and incidental music by Duncan Sheik, it is hard to imagine how this workshop production could possibly improve. Any more embellishment might distract from Lecesne's writing and performance, both of which are crafted with care, embodied with a stirring outcast spirit, and executed with unabashed vigor. While there are other types of performance that make the hard work look easy or add expensive sparkle to the mundane, the craft and skill conspicuously on stage in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is an exhaustive effort that packs a huge emotional punch.
(The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays at Dixon Place, 161 Chrystie Street, through March 28, 2015. Performances are February 7th, 9th, 14th, 19th, and March, 6th, 7th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 20th, 21st, 27th and 28th at 7:30PM, with additional performances on Saturday, February 21st at 2PM, and Sundays, February 22nd and March 1st at 6PM. Tickets are $18 and can be purchased at dixonplace.org or by calling 212-219-0736 or by calling.)