Todd Van Voris has many strengths as an actor: emotional depth and versatility, a knack for the telling gestural detail, that essential ability to appear centered in a particular character in a particular moment. All of those skills come into play in The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey, the multi-faceted and surprisingly moving solo show he’s performing these days for Triangle Productions. But there’s a reason he’s been called by the nickname Todd Van Voice. The most readily noticeable of his gifts is his vocal instrument, a strong yet flexible baritone, warm and weighty; not the bold, burled mahogany of, say, the late, great Portland actor Ted Roisum, perhaps, but unmistakably resonant and masculine.
Such a voice presents a challenge, oddly enough, in Absolute Brightness, which was originated three years ago by the writer/actor James Lecesne, based on his own young-adult novel from 2008.
In its theatrical form, the story follows hard-boiled New Jersey police detective Chuck DeSantis on the trail of Leonard, a missing 14-year-old boy. As things move from seemingly frivolous to grim to life-affirming (and morally instructive, natch), we meet a colorful assortment of characters — from Chuck’s loud-mouthed colleague to Leonard’s vain and harried de facto stepmother, Ellen (Leonard is her “brother’s ex-girlfriend’s son”), to his self-consciously British acting teacher to his nervous teenage peers from school, to ladies from the hair salon where he helped out.
And, as we said, solo show. So Van Voris is charged with bringing all of this disparate crew to life.
Perhaps it’d be silly to doubt his ability to pull it off. After all, he’s shown such a touch playing across gender that during a rehearsal for the comedy “Holidazed” a decade ago at Artists Rep, after Van Voris delivered just one offhanded line as a tippler grandma, playwrights Marc Acito and C.S. Whitcomb shot each other a glance and proceeded to remake the whole scene around the previously incidental character.
And yet there are moments in Absolute Brightness when it sounds as if Van Voris is working to overcome that manly asset of a voice. For instance, for a character called Gloria Salzano, who spots a key piece of evidence in the case, he raises the pitch appropriately, but we can’t miss his native woody solidity there within the old lady’s squeak and quaver. Similarly, there’s still some authoritative heft in the way when he’s voicing the awkward young Phoebe, who, as Ellen’s daughter, has been pressed into service as Leonard’s step-sister — and self-described “freak by association” — once her mom has taken him in.
But here’s the thing: However much Triangle has tried to make of the idea that Van Voris is playing nine different characters in the show, it ain’t necessarily so. The narrative frame is clear here: Detective Chuck DeSantis is the guy onstage, some 10 years after the case in question, telling us what happened to him. Van Voris really is playing that one guy, who in turn portrays the other eight characters as part of his story. So if the gals are a little gruff, blame Chuck. (Or perhaps just blame Jersey.)
And, of course, acting isn’t just talking. What Van Voris does to distinguish these characters is often simple but highly effective. A hand on a cocked left hip gives us an immediate sense of Ellen’s carriage and attitude. Portraying a cocky, callous teen boy named Travis, who clearly cares more about his video game than answering a detective’s questions, Van Voris’s right leg bounces like a piston, replicating that odd, jittery affliction of seemingly every male not yet of drinking age. (Lecesne’s witty writing helps make these characters vivid, too. At one point, for example, Chuck refers to Ellen as “smelling like a really thick fashion magazine.”)
More crucial than voice or physicalization (though, of course, not entirely separable from them) is the matter of emotional affect, and it’s there that Van Voris really shines. When Phoebe relates a disastrous romantic encounter with Travis, Van Voris pulls us into a deep well of sadness, disillusionment, fear and self-recrimination. When Marion, one of the salon customers Leonard has befriended, talks of his effect on her life, we begin to feel the gentle yet powerful ways acceptance and kindness can change us.
Triangle has advertised the show as “a real whodunit” and between that and the stock gumshoe detective (“looking for shit in the shadows”) the thing is built around, you’re forgiven for fearing a little dinner-theater cheapness here. But Lecesne’s whole point is to get us to be open to what’s different from the narrow normal, so he’s subverting low-rent genre for high-minded aims. Much is made of Leonard’s flamboyance (symbolized by a pair of rainbow, stack-heeled high-tops, made by gluing the soles of a half-dozen flip-flops onto Converse sneakers) and headstrong individuality, and of the stifling conformity of the place he’s trying to grow up.
Leonard’s case shows the detective a bright line separating “evil” and openness, and it’s clear which side he’ll lend his voice.
Triangle Productions’ The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey continues through May 26. Ticket and schedule information here.