“VERSE DiVERSE” Gets World Premiere at NYC’s Theater for the New City: A Review

The six characters of Verse DiVerse, the new play written by actor/playwright/director Amy Losi and directed by Ashley Adelman, spend a lot of their time in the fictional Poetry Playwrights Cafe in Chelsea, New York City. Every Friday evening, the diverse group meets to read their new poetry while drinking tea and indulging on homemade tarts. The surrogate matriarch of the Cafe is Daisy Daniels (played by Ami Losi), the no-nonsense owner of the tea shop for 20 years and the “poet mistress” of the group. (As one character describes, she’s “half earth mother, half flower child”.) Complete with her signature daisies in her hair, she has generations of stories and wisdom to share with her spiritual children.  One of the Friday night regulars include Jazmine (Esther Ayomide Akinsanya), a fiery 20-something African-American woman who is struggling to find equality in the male-dominated world of toxic capitalism. In the poetry community, she takes on the persona of “Boundless Joy”. Another participant is Arnold (Johnny Blaze Leavitt), an intensely shy banker who really comes alive when he dons a vintage-style hat and red cape to become “Lord Myron”. There’s also Lily (Brittyn Dion Bonham), a New Age-focused millennial with a special talent for getting on Daisy’s nerves; Daisy, with an extra packet of sarcasm, calls her “my favorite customer”.  Meanwhile, in a small apartment in another area of New York, another cafe regular, Quincy (David Lamberton), is trying to convince his friend and neighbor Rose (Monica Blaze Leavitt) to go with him to the poetry group for the first time.  David has been an English professor for over 40 years.  Rose, a lonely 40-year-old divorcee, is “New York City’s greatest greeting card writer”, working on such rhymers as “Just a note to say, Hope you’re having a good day!”  After much convincing, Rose eventually agrees to go to the gathering.  She is accepted by the group, which creates new opportunities for personal growth, new friends, and… even more.

Outside of the supportive audience at the Cafe, the people we meet in Verse DiVerse show the audience their authentic sides– including but certainly not limited to their vulnerabilities and personal struggles.  Daisy discovers that thanks to gentrification in Manhattan, she may be losing her Cafe.  Jazmine has to choose between an unrewarding life in the corporate world– which her parents push her towards– or satisfying her more creative and more socially conscious sides.  After accidentally (?) meeting outside of the Cafe, Rose and Arnold realize they have something in common; they become, in the words of Air Supply, “two less lonely people in the world”.  Will there be any other romantic connections emerging within this motley crew of creative souls? Astute audiences may figure that out early on in the play, but will still be applauding when two of the other characters (bow)tie up some decades-belated loose ends. In the meantime, Daisy’s vast treasure trove of New York City cultural connections through the years result in a truly heart-warming revelation for Jazmine.  

The acting in Verse DiVerse is excellent, with all of the actors having their own particular skills. Brittyn Dion Bonham’s Lilly becomes more than just an annoying (albeit hilarious) caricature in yet another of the play’s plot twists, which even the most astute of theater lovers won’t see coming. As Jazmine, Esther Ayomide Akinsanya is a revelation.  Whether her character is reading her poetry or speaking passionately about finding a greater purpose in her young life, Akinsanya’s acting seems straight from the heart and soul.  As Arnold and Rose, Johnny and Monica Blaze Leavitt are equally adept at both comedy and pathos.  It may be hard to believe that Arnold and Rose, two New York City natives, can be so socially awkward– but watching the S-L-O-W mating dance between the two is actually funny, sweet, and believable… especially considering that Johnny Blaze Leavitt and Monica Blaze Leavitt (in case you haven’t figured it out from their names) are husband and wife in real life.   Amy Losi, who has a knack for playing maternal characters with an edge (Stillwater in 2016 , Run the Course   earlier this year among them), is perfectly suited for this role. What struck me most of all is the valuable lesson the play teaches, via Losi’s Daisy, about the importance of transgenerational friendships. Finally, David Lamberton’s Quincy is arguably the thread that holds the other, more overtly troubled characters together; it’s the actor’s gentlemanly subtleness that makes it work. 

Playwright Losi has succeeded in crafting well-developed characters in Verse DiVerse. With less developed characters, a less sensitive director, and/or less skilled actors, Verse DiVerse could have drifted into broad parody: the kind of scenario that a lowbrow comedy movie would feature, complete with characters who take themselves way too seriously and deliberately pretentious bad poetry. However, the characters, both individually and as a group, truly evolve in this play. If a main goal of theater is to make the audience genuinely care about the people on the stage, this fine comedic drama gets it right.

Verse DiVerse continues its world premiere at Theater for the New City, as part of the Dream Up Festival. The play continues Monday September 12, at 6:30, Tuesday September 13 at 6:30, Thursday September 15 at 9:00, and Friday September 16 at 6:30. The Stage Manager is Alexandria Thomas, and the Technical Director is Ken Coughlin. Tickets are available at  AudienceView Professional (ovationtix.com)

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