Jimmy Janowski is superb as nine different characters in the one man show The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, a Buffalo United Artists production now at Alleyway Theatre.
Wearing loose grey pants and shirt, Mr. Janowski saunters into the theater, hands in pockets, and begins speaking to the audience as he approaches the stage in the person of detective Chuck Desantis, a tough cop in a small town on the Jersey shore. He begins the tale of what happened to Leonard Pelkey, a 14-year-old boy who went missing wearing rainbow platform sneakers and pink and green plaid capri pants.
Written by James Lecesne, this gem of a play is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, a clever and witty take on the evil that people can do, but also brimming with optimism about the strength of the human spirit, as Leonard Pelkey was no ordinary boy. He was a light in the firmament, a unique child who loved theater and nail polish and who possessed a blatant otherness that puts certain kinds of people on edge, and that can, and too often does, lead to violence.
We learn about Leonard through the people who knew him, all played by Mr. Janowski in a masterful performance that includes, in addition to the narrator Chuck Desantis, another cop; the people who Leonard lived with, Ellen Hertle and her teenage daughter, Phoebe; the owner of a drama school; a red-haired, chain-smoking woman; the widow of a mob boss; an old German man; and a teenage boy.
Each of these characters is distinct. There is never a doubt as to which person Mr. Janowski is at any given time. The inflection of his voice, the accent, and body language transform him into each character. He might spin around and become someone entirely new, or carry on a conversation with two different people. For instance, Buddy, the very expressive British drama school owner, speaks with the down-to-earth detective with the Jersey accent. He transforms into the old, bent-over German clockmaker, lamenting how he treated his own “different” son. He becomes the shy teenage girl, Phoebe, and the tough teenage boy, Travis, playing a video game while he tells the detective about bullying Leonard at the mall. The chain-smoking woman, a tough bird who loved Leonard, provides great insight into his bright, unique character. All of these people are fully-fleshed out individuals thanks both to the excellence of the writing in this short play and to Mr. Janowski’s stellar interpretation of each of them.
Director Todd Warfield uses lighting and subtle sounds to enhance the drama. We hear a clock ticking in the German man’s shop, and crowd noises at the mall. Blackouts and shifts in lighting highlight the dramatic shifts of the play.
On a mostly bare stage with a thrust, only one table and a chair upstage, with occasional projections on the back wall, the life and death of a special—“and not in the Olympic way”—boy is told through the stories of nine people who are brought to life through the talents of the writer, James Lecesne, the director, Todd Warfield, and the absolute brightness of Jimmy Janowski.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey plays Fridays and Saturdays @ 8:00 p.m. at Alleyway Theatre through March 30th.