Reviewed by Leonard Jacobs
The dictionary defines "cantata" as a "choral composition," and playwright Bill Mesce, Jr.'s "A Jersey Cantata" is composed of characters who metaphorically sing. Directed by Ken Dashow, the play's title is ironic in that, when they sing, they sing quietly.
Set in Newark's North Ward, a group of longtime friends reunite for the funeral of a "good kid" dead of AIDS. Billy Bones (Joseph Prussak) is lanky, good-natured, unmarried—the least settled of the group. Albie (double-duty Dashow) is the good-natured dunce, while Francis (Frank Lombardi) runs the funeral parlor where the group reunites. Caruso (Kirk Voorhees, in for Joseph Pacillo) runs the local strip bar. John (Jonathan Sang), a mechanic, is the most vivid character, first by being most vocal about the why the group has regrouped. Daniel (Craig McNulty) plays the partner of the "good kid" and Michelle (Lethia Hall) has a brief scene at the coffee shop of Big Sal (Nat Habib), where a romance with Billy is briefly kindled.
Mesce's AIDS-driven plot turn early on is so odd; you wonder if he's retreading the old "straight-men-find-acceptance" plotline. But this is how Mesce illuminates character—through bracing, realistic dialogue, and scenarios so expertly and poetically drawn that everything is as natural as a natural Jersey accent.
Everyone, we learn, faces struggles, from John's new baby to Caruso's failed marriages to Albie's grueling factory job to a heartbreaking event involving Billy. It's all so universal we could call this "Cantata" Chekhovian, given that so much happens, even when Dashow is just staging a poker game. But maybe that's all we need—people, yearning for past-life connections as the dictates of living encroach upon their lives. Except for when the too-complex set (by Elizabeth Wunsch) slows the action, the play is as tragicomic as watching our years fly by.