Review: ‘The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,’ James Lecesne’s One-Man Play

A show about the brutal murder of a 14-year-old boy should not, logically speaking, leave you beaming with joy. And yet that’s the paradoxical effect of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” a superlative solo show at Dixon Place written and performed by James Lecesne, himself a pretty darn dazzling beacon of theatrical talent.

Please, one-person-show haters — you know who you are, and you are legion — don’t stop reading. Mr. Lecesne, a young-looking 60, who has been “telling stories for over 25 years,” as his bio modestly puts it, ranks among the most talented solo performers of his (or any) generation. His is not one of those here’s-what-happened-to-me-and-isn’t-it-fascinating feasts of oversharing that proliferate on small stages.

Mr. Lecesne has the channel-changing virtuosity to portray a hardened New Jersey detective; a withdrawn teenage girl; her abrasive but warmhearted hairdresser mom; the British proprietor of a dance-and-drama school; and at least half a dozen equally distinctive characters. Each is drawn with the precision of a fine engraving and a dollop of a great cartoonist’s comic expressionism. But Mr. Lecesne is also a writer of wit and keen observational skills, who here unfolds a dark tale that shimmers with the needling suspense you associate with the best police procedurals, or the likes of “Gone Girl.”

Perhaps most remarkably, he’s the rare artist who doesn’t shy away from sentimentality. It may or may not be an in-joke that Mr. Lecesne’s show includes a brief reference to Charles Dickens, but even before the moment arrived I’d made the comparison myself. Like that great storyteller, Mr. Lecesne evokes a grittily specific world, but one in which good and evil are real presences. (Given the appalling state of international affairs, it’s a notion that feels grimly in sync with the zeitgeist.)

Mr. Lecesne’s short film “Trevor,” which won an Oscar for live-action short in 1995, was about a gay teenager who attempted suicide, based on a character from his solo show “Word of Mouth.” Mr. Lecesne subsequently co-founded the Trevor Project, a nationwide suicide prevention and crisis intervention program for gay youth. (“Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and questioning youth,” to use his words.) The new show, adapted from his 2008 young adult novel “Absolute Brightness” and sharply directed by Tony Speciale, also concerns the fate of a gay teenager harassed by his peers. But I should emphasize that Mr. Lecesne is an entertainer down to his fingertips. A soapbox is not among the minimal props used here.

The evening’s primary narrator, recollecting events from a decade before, is Chuck DeSantis, a thickly accented detective in the classic gumshoe mold, working in “some godforsaken precinct down the Jersey Shore,” as he puts it. Storming into his office one day is Ellen Hertle, described by her embarrassed 16-year-old daughter Phoebe as “just a local beauty-stylist slash control freak.”

Ellen has come to report the disappearance of the title character, whom she describes as her nephew, although the connection is technically more tenuous. Anyway, he’s been missing for 24 hours — well, O.K., 19 hours and 47 minutes — and what is Chuck going to do about it? And why isn’t he writing all this down?

The details surrounding Leonard’s disappearance come into focus as Chuck begins his investigation. He learns off the bat that Leonard was no average boy from a Jersey burg. As that pompous British owner of the drama school Leonard attended colorfully puts it, in a tone of deep seriousness, “I don’t think I’ve ever met a child who could express himself so thoroughly with jazz hands.”

Ellen suddenly remembers that when he disappeared Leonard was wearing a pair of rainbow-colored platform sneakers that he’d made himself by gluing half a dozen flip-flops to the bottom of Converse high-tops. The case takes a dark turn when Gloria Salzano, a mob widow living on the edge of a local lake, sees one of Leonard’s unmistakable shoes floating in the water.

As gabby as the rest of the show’s characters, Gloria waylays Chuck with her musings on matters of deep faith. “Do you believe in hell?” she asks. “I’m just asking because not too long ago, the pope did away with limbo. So I’m thinking hell can’t be far behind. But then what’s gonna happen to all those evildoers who’ve been down there since God knows when? And that’s a lot of people.”

Although the story of Leonard’s killing is of course a sad one, Mr. Lecesne’s multihued performance glows with such humanity (and robust humor) that while you may find yourself choking back a tear or two, the overall effect is hardly lugubrious. Mr. Lecesne’s compassionate portraits of the men and women who came into contact with Leonard underscore overall trends in American culture, which point toward a much greater acceptance of gay men and women, even in pockets of the country where prejudice still holds strong sway.

Yet that’s hardly the whole story, either, as Marion, a patron of Ellen’s salon, knows. “I tried to warn him,” she says in a Winstons-by-the-carton croak. “Tone it down honey, I said to him. The nail polish, the mascara — maybe not so much. He claimed he was just being himself. All right, fine, but do you have to be so much yourself? He told me if he stopped being himself the terrorists would win. How do you argue with a kid like that?”

Among the most remarkable — and moving — aspects of Mr. Lecesne’s show is how vividly Leonard himself is evoked, although he is not a character in it, just a blurred image seen on a screen. We come away sharing Marion’s feeling of loss, Ellen’s feeling of indignation, but mostly the admiration all of Leonard’s friends share for his tenacious belief in being true to himself in a world that was often hostile, and ultimately fatal.