The actor Joe Foust plays around a dozen characters in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” the solo play by James Lecesne now receiving its Chicago premiere at American Blues Theater. But the title character isn’t one of them.
Leonard Pelkey is a 14-year-old boy whose flamboyant tastes make him impossible to miss in the unnamed small town on the Jersey shore where the play is set. He wears nail polish, capri pants, and homemade rainbow platform sneakers he assembled from Chuck Taylor high-tops and the bases of a half-dozen pairs of flip-flops.
‘The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey’ ★★ When: Through April 27 Where: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Tickets: $19 – $39 Info: americanbluestheater.com Run time: 1 hour, 15 minutes with no intermission
We don’t know for sure that he’s gay, cautions his guardian, a brassy hairstylist named Ellen Hertle who took Leonard in after his mother died a few years earlier. Nor would it matter to the teenage bullies who target him whether he’s really gay or not. But Lecesne makes clear that Leonard very likely is, and that he’s a very specific, almost throwback strain of gay to boot. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands,” says the director of the local drama-and-dance school, without a trace of irony.
Leonard is also, more importantly, missing. And given that the primary narrator of “Absolute Brightness” is a police detective, we sense from the opening scene that things don’t look good for young Leonard; midway through the play’s 75-minute running time, the boy’s body is recovered from the bottom of a lake.
Lecesne has serious bona fides when it comes to advocating for gay teens. He wrote the Oscar-winning short film “Trevor,” about a Diana Ross-worshiping kid in the early 1980s who attempts suicide after his male crush rebuffs him. (Chicago audiences may have seen the charming musical adaptation of “Trevor,” by “Southern Comfort” writers Julianne Wick Davis and Dan Collins, that premiered at Writers Theatre in 2017.) With the film’s producers, Peggy Rajski and Randy Stone, Lecesne went on to found The Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention resource for LGBTQ young people.
Lecesne also spearheaded “The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves,” an anthology for kid-lit publisher Scholastic. And he’s written three young-adult novels — one of which was the basis for this solo show, which Lecesne, who’s also an actor, performed himself in the New York and Los Angeles productions.
So we know his empathy and concern for gay kids are sincere. But those impulses steer the writer wrong in “Absolute Brightness.” Here, the unseen gay teen is painted as both cipher and saint, a soul so pure and positive that his tragic death encourages all the straight people who knew him to live more fully; it’s like a modern reimagining of John 3:16.
What little sense we get of Leonard’s life comes from those he left behind: Ellen, the hairstylist, and her mousy 16-year-old daughter, Phoebe; Ellen’s chain-smoking salon client who accompanies her to the morgue to identify the body; the prissy English proprietor of the drama school, and a quirky Mafia widow who discovers one of Leonard’s rainbow sneakers washed up on the lakeshore.
Foust plays all of these characters and more, including the detective, Chuck DeSantis, who didn’t know Leonard — which seems odd, since he appears to be the only one in this burg who didn’t — and whose investigation provides us with all of this witness testimony.
“Investigation” might be too generous a word, actually. While it looks at first like Lecesne is setting up an old-fashioned mystery plot, the circumstances of Leonard’s death are revealed in rote fashion; the evidence falls into DeSantis’ lap with little effort on his part.
That leaves us, then, with the characters. Foust is a well-loved figure in Chicago theater, appearing regularly on stages like the Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare and First Folio. He has a naturally inviting and playful energy, and his performance here is technically proficient, differentiating his many characters with shifts of physicality and vocal gymnastics.
But no matter what Foust does with his voice, Lecesne’s authorial voice shows through in broad strokes and weird non-sequiturs. DeSantis, the detective, speaks like he’s writing Sam Spade fanfic but also quotes Shakespeare; most of the characters’ monologues are stocked with odd tangents that suggest plot points left on the cutting-room floor.
You get the sense that Lecesne wants the characters’ remembrances of Leonard to reflect shifting attitudes in America’s small towns, that this extremely gay boy is inspirational to these old-fashioned New Jerseyans. Yet there’s something distressingly old-fashioned about Lecesne’s framing, too: from the curious technophobia several of his characters espouse, to the persistent trope of the gay martyr who must die so that straight people can truly live.
Kris Vire is a Chicago freelance writer.