Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Review by Rebecca Rendell

Also see Rebecca's review of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane


James Lecesne
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey tells the story of missing teen Leonard Pelkey through the eyes of the jaded police officer who worked the case ten years ago. The investigation includes interviews with Leonard's brash but well meaning aunt, her awkward teenage daughter, an eccentric British theater teacher, a kindly old man who runs a clock repair shop, a chain-smoking widow who frequents the local beauty salon, and other residents of the small Jersey shore town. Incredibly, author and actor James Lecesne plays every one of them.

In the stark and intimate space (set design by Jo Winiarski), Lecesne's transitions from middle-aged detective to widowed voyeur or teenage blowhard are like watching a magician's sleight of hand. There are no moving set pieces to distract or elaborate costumes to assist, just a few small props and Lecesne's considerable acting talent. Lecesne's chameleon-like performance is completely engrossing and well worth the cost of admission.

The production is thoroughly captivating, thanks to Lecesne's superior performance and Tony Speciale's restrained direction, but there are some problems with the script. References to modern technologies and services seem uncomfortably forced, like a guidance counselor making clumsy jokes to keep a middle-school audience engaged. Despite its serious subject matter, the play never achieves any emotional depth, relying on humor and distance to keep things from getting too intense. But the most serious issue is that Leonard Pelkey himself never develops into anything more than an idealized caricature of a gay teenager living in a small American town.

Although we never meet Leonard Pelkey, the play is as much about his life as the investigation into his disappearance. We quickly learn that Leonard wore make-up, capri pants, rainbow shoes, and the occasional pair of iridescent blue fairy wings. All of the characters we meet talk about a time when Leonard's fearless attitude and unique insight changed their lives for the better. A new hair style, a special tube of lipstick, or just a conversation and a cup of hot chocolate. The problem is this sort of empowered and encouraging, super flamboyant, always upbeat and helpful, fashion-loving old-soul is just like a thousand gay characters and no real person. With no real flaws (unless being too true to yourself can be considered a flaw), evidence of self doubt, or internal conflict, Pelkey never becomes anything more than a modern literary trope.

Despite this missed opportunity, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is excellent and entertaining. Get your tickets to see James Lecesne's remarkable performance before this production disappears.

The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey runs through June 4th, 2017, at the Philadelphia Theatre Company's Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Streets. For tickets call (215) 985-0420 or go online at PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.

Written and Performed by James Lecesne
Directed by Tony Speciale
Original Music by Duncan Sheik
Scenic Design by Jo Winiarski
Costume Design by Paul Marlow
Lighting Design by Matthew Richards
Sound Design by Christian Frederickson
Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne


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