As one might expect from the title, the primary character in this 70-minute play is Leonard Pelkey. Don’t expect, however, to see Leonard onstage. For even though this is his story and every other character spends most of their time talking about him, he never appears. For as we learn in the first few minutes, Leonard Pelkey disappeared, ten years before the action – such as it is – begins.
Leonard’s story is told in flashbacks, primarily by the small-town police officer who investigated the missing persons case, but also by Leonard’s adoptive mother and sister, and an array of other townsfolk whose lives were changed forever by knowing a little boy who knew just how different he was, and that his small town would never really accept him, but never shied from being exactly who he was.
The script sometimes veers into cliché and the story it lays out is relatively simple: the mystery being that there is really no mystery here. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the mundane nature of what ultimately happened to Leonard is a powerful reminder of how casual cruelty can be. But in the opening moments, the story is set up as being a cold case that we expect will be reopened in the present. Spoiler alert: this doesn’t happen, we simply get the story of what happened in an investigation that opened and closed over the course of several weeks a decade in the past.
Still, Leonard – though we never meet him – is a compelling character: a 14-year old boy who refuses to be anything less than what he is, even though it means daily teasing and abuse. He’s the boy who insists that the women who frequent his mother’s beauty shop that they “simply must, must, must have” a little black dress in their closets. “He said it was de rigeur,” one of the shop’s clients says. “I think that’s French for ‘must have.’”
Perhaps the best reason to see The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is the performance by James Lecesne, who plays every one of the dozen or so characters. Lecesne physically inhabits a wide range of people – a sharp but somewhat jaded 16-year old girl, a fey British theater school owner, a video game obsessed teenage boy, a snoopy older woman – imbuing all with physical and emotional characteristics and distinctive voices that let us know exactly who we’re listening to in every moment.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is playing at the Westside Theater, 407 W. 43rd Street (between 9th and 10th), New York. Tickets are on sale for shows through November 1.