REVIEW: OFF-BROADWAY’S “THE ABSOLUTE BRIGHTNESS OF LEONARD PELKEY”

ABS-KeyArt-WithTagJames Lecesne’s list of accomplishments will make you feel like the laziest person on earth.

A seasoned Broadway and Off-Broadway veteran with Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards under his belt, Lecesne is an Emmy-nominated television actor/writer, and a three-time novelist. He is also the executive producer of the 2009 documentary film, After The Storm, about the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the lives of twelve young people in New Orleans. On top of that, he wrote the screenplay for the short film, Trevor, which not only won him an Academy Award, but also inspired the founding of the Trevor Project, the only nationwide 24-hour suicide prevent and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBT and questioning youth.

Now, Lecesne has returned to the New York stage for the limited 12-week Off-Broadway run of his touching, heartfelt, and important 90-minute one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. Take that, James Franco.

Based upon Lecesne’s own young adult novel, Absolute Brightness takes place in a small New Jersey town that has been shaken to the core by the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey. Lecesne portrays every character as they individually try to piece together the puzzle surrounding what happened to Pelkey, and reflect upon how he changed their lives – and inadvertently, the town itself. As these characters think back on their interactions and relationships with Pelkey, they realize just how much he challenged those around him simply by refusing to conform to any pre-conceived notions of who he should be and instead always stayed true to himself.

1 Signature Photo - James Lecesne as Chuck in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Detective Chuck DeSantis, the show’s narrator, reveals that Pelkey’s body was found at the bottom of a lake and that he was undoubtedly murdered, it’s up to Pelkey’s family, friends, and neighbors to honor his memory by celebrating the same vivaciousness that tragically ended up killing him. As DeSantis speaks to these individuals in an attempt to solve the mystery of Pelkey’s death, he encounters people like Pelkey’s aunt, the owner of a local hair salon, her timid 16-year-old daughter, an elderly German man who owns a clock repair shop, a mobster’s widow, a teenage bully who is more interested in video games than remembering his former peer, and the head of the drama school where Pelkey was rehearsing The Tempestprior to his murder.

“Several years after publishing the novel, I found myself still thinking about this story,” Lecesne told New York Theatre Review, explaining his decision to adapt his work for the stage. “So much had happened since then to make me aware of the problems of bullying and its effect on kids who insist on being themselves. And so I began to explore how I might tell the same story for a more adult audience, from a different point of view and on my feet in front of an audience.”

There was the special difficulty of deciding which characters he could play. “Let’s just say that the idea of portraying certain characters presented a daunting challenge – would the audience accept me, a mature male, as say a 16-year-old girl and without a touch of makeup or costume?” he added. “But one thing I’ve learned from my years of experience is that nothing is more inspiring than the ability of a theater audience to make the necessary imaginative leap.”

3 James Lecesne as Gloria in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Yet Lecesne makes that leap seem far from difficult. He morphs into these characters with hardly any transition time, and the way he fully embodies them is truly a marvel to behold. Instead of relying on costume changes or props, Lecesne radically changes his voice and physicality to properly encapsulate each character. His remarkable attention to the smallest of details completely transforms him right before the audience’s eyes – despite the fact that he never leaves the stage or changes out of the simple tucked in button-down and dress pants he wears throughout the show. In fact, his portrayal of each character is so convincing and spot-on that it’s easy to forget that there is only one person on stage. The exceptional and colorful ways that he brings each of them to life with such distinct personalities and mannerisms is beyond inspired; his performance never wavers, no matter if he’s playing a man, woman, child, old person, or anyone in between.

Another part of what makes Absolute Brightness such a fascinating piece of work is how it tackles the ripple effect that Pelkey’s death has. For some characters that knew the boy directly, his tragedy highlights how much change and introspection is needed to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. And for those who didn’t know him personally, his story still resonates as one that will forever change and shape their town. They realize that his bravery brought out their own cowardice, and that their insistence that he “tone down” his self-expression didn’t help him – and instead only fueled the hate that led to his demise. The only silver lining is that what happened to Pelkey opened the eyes of an entire community that might have otherwise never known better than to continue rejecting someone purely for telling their truth.

Featuring a gorgeous original score by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening; American Psycho),Absolute Brightness is a one-of-a-kind and timeless theater experience that will stay with you long after Lecesne’s final bow. It’s a powerful story that dares its audience to defy convention and encourages them to embrace their true selves, no matter how much that might conflict with social expectations. And above all, it reminds us that love will always outlast hate.

Click here to buy your tickets to The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, now playing through October 4th at the Westside Theatre in New York City.

2 James Lecesne as Chuck in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey - Photo by Matthew Murphy

Originally Published on PopBytes

AUDRA MCDONALD & WILL SWENSON IN ‘A MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN’ AT THE WILLIAMSTOWN THEATRE FESTIVAL

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It’s been eight years since Audra McDonald and Will Swenson shared the stage.

After they met during the 2007 Broadway revival of 110 in the Shade, the pair got married and quickly became the Brangelina-level power couple of the theater world. Since then, Swenson has garnered a Tony nomination for his turn in the acclaimed 2009 revival of Hair, and landed starring roles in high-profile shows like Les Miserables and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. McDonald has gone on to cement her status as modern Broadway royalty – not only because her six Tony Awards make her the record holder for the most wins, but also because she’s the first person to win in every single acting category (most recently for her astounding transformation into the late Billie Holiday in Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill). In between making theater history, McDonald has taken center stage at Carnegie Hall, co-starred in Disney’s upcoming live action remake of Beauty and the Beast and the latest Meryl Streep film, Ricki and the Flash. She also has begun gearing up for the original Broadway musical, Shuffle Along, alongside actors Billy Porter and Brian Stokes Mitchell, set to open in April 2016. So for a couple as busy and in demand as McDonald and Swenson, the idea of spending the summer working together was a no-brainer.

20188930090_55c39a0074_zNow playing at the revered Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts, A Moon for the Misbegotten reunites McDonald and Swenson in a professional setting. During 110 in the Shade, Swanson was an understudy (for Bill Starbuck), and although he did go on opposite his future wife, they never rehearsed together. Moon marks the first time that the duo have collaborated on a piece of theater from the ground up, and getting to dive into writer Eugene O’Neill’s emotionally vast drama together has opened up an entirely new and rewarding chapter in their relationship.

“We’re getting to know each other in a completely different way,” McDonald explained to Broadway.com about working with her husband. “We’re learning who we are in the creative process. It’s a new experience to get to know someone you think you already know so well, but in a different light.”

“Because I’ve never really worked up a show with Audra I feel like I’m learning things about her that I had no idea about. We’ve been together for years and years. You think you know somebody pretty intimately but there’s this huge part of Audra that I haven’t ever really got to experience,” Swenson told The Huffington Post. “It’s been thrilling actually because … I say this not just because she’s my wife … but it’s been amazing. I feel like I’m learning something every day the way that she is this truth-seeking missile who will absolutely mine a moment within an inch of its life to find the truthfulness in it and the way that that has a ripple effect throughout the coming moments,” he continued. “I’m just learning a lot from working with her.”

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Written by Nobel laureate Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten is a semi-sequel to the playwright’s seminal work, Long Day’s Journey into Night (which will be returning to Broadwaythis March with Jessica Lange, Gabriel Byrne, Michael Shannon and John Gallagher, Jr.). In the play, Long Day’s Journey character Jamie Tyrone (Swenson) is older but as self-destructive and dissolute as ever. He’s the landlord of a Connecticut farm and is allegedly preparing to sell the property out from under its tenants, Phil Hogan (in a riveting performance by Glynn Turman) and his daughter, Josie (McDonald). When the Hogans become aware of Tyrone’s plans, they concoct a scheme for Josie to seduce Tyrone and blackmail him into selling the farm to them for the significantly lower price that he once promised them. But as Josie kicks their plan into action, she and Tyrone embark on a harrowing journey through the course of one night that exposes their innermost darkest truths, fragile desires, and haunting pasts. Will they achieve the redemption they seek by the time dawn comes? Or are these two souls too damaged to be repaired?

Ripe with meaty monologues and gritty character unraveling, the play provides for an incredible actor’s showcase for both McDonald and Swenson. Unsurprisingly, their chemistry is palpable, and both are excellent in their layered portrayals of these tortured individuals who somehow find temporary solace and peace in one another’s arms.

Staging the infamously dense O’Neill can often prove to be a tricky feat. So in a successful attempt to be more accessible and impactful for contemporary audiences, this production employs race as a way to underline the socio-economic differences between the Hogans and Tyrone. Set in 1923, the original play depicted the Hogans as Irish-Americans (O’Neill wrote that Josie had “the map of Ireland stamped on her face”). But in this new telling of the story, the Hogans are African-American and Tyrone is the lone Caucasian.

20350740266_642a7babbc_zIn the show’s program, director Gordon Edelstein elaborates on this redirected focus. “I have had a long relationship with A Moon for the Misbegotten and the work of Eugene O’Neill, and when [Williamstown Theatre Festival Artistic Director] Mandy Greenfield and I began discussions about a way to present this work with revitalizing eyes, we began to explore the notion of making the Hogans African-American tenant farmers,” he divulges. “It is certainly true that a minor theme in the play is the relationship between representatives of two classes of Irish-Americans in early twentieth century America. Those distinctions are lost on contemporary audiences much like the historical context in which Shakespeare wrote his plays is, for the most part, lost on us today. We hope the juxtaposition of whites and blacks in this production illuminates O’Neill’s themes of class and power with an even greater clarity. The music of the language can be heard anew, much like when you hear a refreshing new interpretation of a piece of music that you thought you knew—further proof of the fungibility of great theatrical art. Great plays are about human beings and it’s the human experience that is being portrayed here, always shifting depending on who is doing it and how it is being done.”

But what’s unchanged are how the characters grow and subsequently interact with one another. Josie starts off as a thick-skinned, no-nonsense, earthy woman who is unafraid to voice her opinion and assert her dominance over those who try to challenge her. As the show progresses, her walls are slowly taken down and we see the nurturing and compassionate person inside who simply yearns for earnest human connection and understanding. Similarly, Tyrone is introduced as a selfish, smug city boy whose priorities in the country don’t extend beyond alcohol, sex, and his own financial gain, no matter at whose expense. Yet as he too begins to shed the armor he’s initially presented with, Tyrone reveals himself to be a vulnerable, pained, and rather broken man. As a result, these two characters who at first seemed worlds apart, are able to relate to one another in a way that makes Moon a dark, captivating, and ultimately tragic love story.

Adding literal depth to the production is the evocative scenic design by the renowned Ming Cho Lee. Lee’s design calls for an open, melancholy sky that falls behind the Hogans’ farm in a rounded way that appears as though it stretches far beyond the theater’s walls. The farm is located atop a hill, and the hike that the actors must take when coming and going to and from the property lends a striking degree of realism that brilliantly plays off the sense of intimacy that the script demands. The breathtaking design almost suggests that with so much world around them left to explore, the Hogans and Tyrone have imprisoned themselves by clinging to this small piece of land and allowing it to dictate who they evolve into. It’s no wonder, then, that the play opens with Josie helping her brother (played by Howard W. Overshown) run away to make his own way in the world free from the confines of the farm.

So will Moon follow in the footsteps of other recent Williamstown Theatre Festival productions (like The Elephant Man and The Visit) and transfer to the Great White Way?

“These are notoriously difficult roles. I wouldn’t want to step out on Broadway to try Josie for the first time,” McDonald confessed to The Boston Globe. “It’s great to have a place up here [in the Berkshires] to start to crack it open. It’s a safe, fertile environment in which to take a big risk.”

And it’s a risk that more than pays off. With A Moon for the Misbegotten, McDonald and Swenson not only triumph in showing off their artistic versatility and seemingly limitless partnership, they also resurrect an American classic in a way that makes it feel exciting, fresh and poignant for today’s audiences.

Click here to buy your tickets for A Moon for the Misbegotten, now playing through August 23rd at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

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Originally published on PopBytes