I have a confession to make – I’ve never seen a one-person show before, and I never thought I would be much inclined to, if I’m being honest. Why watch one person exert the heroic amount of energy and precision it must take to juggle a dozen characters — a proposition that would instantly fail if even one ball was dropped — when one can just as easily see a show with a whole cast of actors to share that burden? It always seemed like a bit of a gimmick to me, an example of a performer trying to be too clever for their own good. With those ill-advised, preconceived notions in mind, I was pleasantly surprised by how funny, engaging and emotionally satisfying the experience of watching The Absolute Brightness of Leonard PelkeyJames Lecesne’s new off-Broadway play at the Westside Theatre, turned out to be.

The show, which is based on Lecesne’s 2008 novel, Absolute Brightness, is about the disappearance of a vivacious 14-year old boy, the eponymous Leonard Pelkey, who also happens to be gay in a “God-forsaken,” “half-assed” town on the Jersey Shore. Those aren’t my words, but the words of hapless, noir-parody detective Chuck DeSantis, Lecesne’s main character and the show’s narrator and protagonist. The play may be named for and about Leonard, who we come to find out through DeSantis’ investigation had a profound effect on just about everyone in town fortunate enough to come across him, but he’s the one character Lecesne does not portray — we come to know him and feel his vibrant spirit and unashamed individuality through the stories of those DeSantis speaks to while searching for the answers of how and why this tragedy befell such a gentle, luminous young soul. The show’s most striking image, that of the Converse sneakers Leonard converted into rainbow-colored, platform shoes by gluing the soles of flip-flops together, serves as a memorable symbol of Leonard and his fate; he may have only been 5’4”, but through sheer force of will and imagination, he made himself larger than life by constantly expressing and sharing his true self with others, and in a town and world that is still plagued by small-minded homophobes and bullies, he spent his last hours in those shoes and paid for it with his life.

Lecesne, who won an Academy Award for writing the short film, Trevor, a story about a 13-year old boy who attempts to take his own life after being shunned by his peers because of his sexuality, and founded The Trevor Project, a 24-hour suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth, clearly holds the plight of young, gay teens close to his heart. The passion and advocacy that informs his art shines through in his newest production, without seeming overbearing or preachy — it’s a fully realized story brimming with genuine characters and pathos, and it is through this deeply felt emotional core that the message of aspiring to inclusiveness and acceptance is realized.

Lecesne more than rises up to the challenge of his medium, seamlessly switching between many characters of different ages, genders and backgrounds – some highlights include an overbearing hairdresser and her insecure daughter, a British expat who teaches drama in town and a Mob wife widow who wonders if people who don’t do anything to stop the evil around them are condemned to hell. He embodies each character with such a distinctive voice and set of mannerisms that it’s never unclear who’s who. With just one performer on stage, Lecesne single-handedly creates and portrays a vibrant cast of characters that give life to the story and setting. The show is alternately sorrowful and hilarious, with the laughs doled out in just about every scene with Lecesne’s characterizations and dialogue. It is one of those rare works of art that works just as well at eliciting laughter as it does a genuine emotional response.

The production also utilizes images on a projector screen in the background, often used by DeSantis to present the latest exhibit of evidence in his investigation, which adds an interesting extra dimension to the experience. My only real complaint about the show is that the mystery angle is pretty weak as far as mysteries go, and it is solved abruptly with little effort on the detective’s part, but then this isn’t really supposed to be a sprawling piece of detective fiction – it’s the story of a young boy paying the ultimate price for the crime of being himself and the way a community comes together to remember just how important this boy really was in their lives. On that score, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey is a resounding success.

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