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The Best and the Brightest 

click to enlarge James Lecesne performs in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” - PETER YESLEY
  • Peter Yesley
  • James Lecesne performs in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.”

"Everybody likes a story. If the story's good, we'll miss dinner for that!" says James Lecesne. On April 12 Lecesne will present his one-man show "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" at Club Helsinki in Hudson.

"Absolute Brightness" tells the story of the senseless murder of the title character, a 14-year-old boy, in a small unnamed town on the Jersey Shore. The narrator is a world-weary detective, Chuck DeSantis (whose last name means "holy"). Chuck meets at least a half-dozen other characters, all incarnated by Lecesne with a few props. Employing elements of film noir and Jersey humor, the actor-writer leads us on a twisting tale adapted from his 2007 young adult novel Absolute Brightness. The piece was shaped by well-known director Tony Speciale. Duncan Sheik supplied the music.

A one-person show is usually a series of monologues. Lecesne has the rare gift of allowing his characters to interact. One of his secrets is an excellent spatial memory. Lecesne recalls exactly where each of his alter egos is standing onstage, allowing him to step back into that personality at will. Lecesne's work is influenced by his practice of Nichiren Buddhism. His goal is to evoke compassion for all his characters, even the brutal homophobes.

Leonard Pelkey himself never appears in the show; we see him only through the eyes of others. Clearly Leonard was a daring, experimental youth who fought the strictures of small-town life. Pelkey's silence haunts "Absolute Brightness." "After the show people always ask me if it's a true story," Lecesne reports. "To me that's the highest compliment, that I could make a piece of art that seems real."

This is a bittersweet moment for the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) community. Marriage equality is spreading like a dance craze, while simultaneously transgendered people are being murdered throughout the country. "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" navigates this complex climate.

"Absolute Brightness" has been a runaway hit at Dixon Place, the performance space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In February, Charles Isherwood gave the show a rave in the New York Times. This will be the first time the work is presented outside New York City. There will only be one performance in Hudson.

Lecesne started as an actor. Influenced by pioneer monologist Ruth Draper, and later by Lily Tomlin's "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," he created his first one-man show—a musical titled "One Man Band"—in 1985, to showcase his acting talent. No acting jobs ensued, but he got a good reviews. Gradually, he realized that the one-man show was his genre. "I just keep doing it no matter what the fashion is," Lecesne explains.

Mike Nichols and Elaine May produced his next performance piece, "Word of Mouth," in 1995. That same year, Lecesne wrote Trevor, which won an Oscar for best short film. Trevor is a gay 13-year-old boy who's shunned for his sexuality and attempts suicide. Three years later, Lecesne co-founded the Trevor Project, a support network for LGBTQ youth, which includes a national 24-hour hotline. James Lecesne is inspired by the courage and freedom of queer teens: "There are kids who are risking their lives and losing their homes and their families to be who they are." The character of Leonard Pelkey is a tribute to them.

"The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey" will be performed at Club Helsinki in Hudson at 8pm on April 12. (518) 828-4800; Helsinkihudson.com.

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