The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a one-man show featuring James Lecesne as multiple characters, has an intriguing setup. Fourteen-year-old Leonard Pelkey has been reported missing, and detective Chuck DeSantis must figure out what happened to him. The search takes DeSantis around a small, unnamed Jersey Shore town, where he meets a variety of colorful locals. The potential is awesome, the delivery a little short.
Throughout the show, Leonard is described as flamboyant. He wears capris pants, combines flip-flop bottoms with Chuck Taylor All-Stars to make platform sneakers, tells women’s fortunes by their hairstyles. He’s not officially out, but everybody knows.
The first basic test for a one-man show is whether the performer can even pull it off, and Lecesne passes easily. He morphs effortlessly between DeSantis, Ellen Hertle, the salon owner who took Leonard in when his mother died, her daughter Phoebe and many others. The characters are interesting, funny, occasionally insightful.
DeSantis’ interviews paint a picture of both boy and locale. It’s a blue-collar town. The kind of place where Bruce Springsteen is revered like a god. Leonard is certainly out of place, and the people close to him are concerned something bad might happen.
Still, the picture is incomplete. The monologues from various characters are more about themselves than Leonard, particularly the former mob wife (she’s filing her nails while they’re dragging the lake). People describe the boy as flamboyant or weird. Occasionally, someone tells an anecdote that gives a window into who he was and how he affected the town, but these are relatively sparse. There’s a lot more telling than showing.
The same is true of the town’s anti-Leonard motivations. We see his platform sneakers, hear about the fears people had for his safety, even learn about a minor bullying incident. But it doesn’t really translate into existential dread. It’s as if Lecesne (the playwright) expects the audience to make their own syllogism. Leonard wears capris pants. Small, Jersey Shore towns are dangerous for boys who wear capris pants. Leonard is in grave danger. I needed more.
But people miss Leonard, and that’s real. They seem surprised by their emotions, and there are several poignant windows into people’s lives and histories. They can’t really categorize how Leonard made them feel.
And that’s the show in a nutshell: sublime moments punctuated by cheap laughs and a missing, under-characterized teen named Leonard. It’s smart, moving and even fun, but it’s not particularly satisfying.