Marc D'Amico shines in Blackfriars' 'The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey' 

click to enlarge Matt D'Amico performs in the one-man show "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey." - PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • Matt D'Amico performs in the one-man show "The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey."
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” playing at Blackfriars Theatre through Feb. 12, has good intentions. Really good ones. Painfully good ones.

The real selling point of this one-man show, though, is the impressive performance by solo actor Marc D’Amico, who navigates the audience through an upsetting story about the death of a teenage boy, keeping them engaged and chuckling the full 80 minutes.

The playwright Celeste Lecesne, formerly known as James Lecesne, co-founded The Trevor Project, the first nationwide crisis intervention hotline for LGBTQ youth, and is clearly committed to inspiring broader acceptance for queer people. “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” follows in the footsteps of “The Laramie Project,” the 2002 docu-play that detailed the murder of a gay student in rural Wyoming, using theater to speak out against hate crimes.

The message of "Leonard Pelkey" is as subtle as Leonard’s multi-colored, sparkly platform high-top shoes.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
The set that D'Amico commands under the deft direction of Patricia Lewis Browne consists of a fold-up table and chair below a hanging light fixture. There are several props: a landline phone, colorful Converse sneakers, pink butterfly wings, a red backpack, some rope. Photographs of these props are projected against the backwall when they appear as evidence. With the exception of an occasional sip from a mug, though, the props go untouched. D’Amico doesn’t need much to bring a small town on the Jersey Shore and its residents to life.

He begins and ends as Chuck DeSantis, your run-of-the-mill small town detective, straight out of a noir with his amiable, no-nonsense delivery. The jazzy incidental music fades and Chuck steps forward to introduce the story that put his town “on the Mapquest,” and gave it a Wikipedia page: the brutal murder of 14-year-old Leonard Pelkey.

Chuck transforms into Leonard’s Aunt Ellen and her emotionally mature 16-year-old daughter Phoebe to report Leonard’s disappearance. From there, D’Amico becomes various townspeople as the play covers the discovery of the body, the funeral, and the murder trial.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
D’Amico’s convincing performances include a flamboyant British theater director, an opinionated hair stylist, and a watchmaker with a thick German accent. While none of these characters are particularly original, D’Amico uses pronounced facial expressions and body language to make them entertaining and nuanced. His hands alone can create a character through mime: He can become an ex-mob wife holding binoculars, or a teen giving his testimonial while holding a game console and shooting at targets on a video game.

Despite the murder mystery setup, the play is less interested in the question of “whodunnit” and focuses more on answering “Who was Leonard Pelkey?” Each monologue is more eulogy than interrogation.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
Phoebe sums up the town’s impressions immediately, telling Chuck that Leonard was gay. While this isn’t confirmed, everyone has stories about Leonard being flamboyant and flouting gender expectations. He glued together flip-flops under a pair of Converse sneakers to make his own high-top shoes. He was very familiar with nail polish and lip gloss. He persuaded the women in the town they needed little black dresses in their wardrobes.

Ironically, the play allows a single actor to embody characters who are both male and female, but never Leonard Pelkey, the child who was killed for not fitting into one limited idea of gender. Leonard is confined to the anecdotes from the people around him who thought he was a bit annoying and extra, but now that he’s tragically died, have learned to appreciate him.

This play won’t be for everyone. There are plenty of people who are already painfully aware of homophobia and transphobia, living in constant fear as they watch the news and move through the world. They don’t need a play in which a town of straight people are inspired by a brutal murder to be aware that a queer person’s life has value. These folks would not be faulted for staying home and seeking out stories that don’t bury their gays.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
  • PHOTO BY RON HEERKENS JR./GOAT FACTORY MEDIA
But then there are plenty of people, much like the characters in the play, who are well-intentioned but don’t fully get it. They may stumble over the appropriate acronyms and pronouns; they may think a child like Leonard who insists on wearing pink fairy wings while performing as Ariel in “The Tempest” is simply “too much.” This play, with its painfully good intentions, embraces those people with the love and acceptance that Leonard Pelkey needed to die to receive.

Katherine Varga is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to Daniel J. Kushner, CITY's arts editor, at [email protected].
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