On the night of a performance, the stained glass windows in the Theatre at St. Clement's are shuttered up, and the fans spin drowsily above the darkened rostrum. The only light filters mutely through a grimy window of an abandoned warehouse on stage. The production company that has chosen the modest chapel to stage its newest play is The Private Theatre, which has a self-described penchant for “staging productions in unexpected venues.” So while St. Clement's might masquerade as a place of worship on Sundays, the dim, churchly setting belies the emotional violence of director John Gould Rubin’s production of A Queen for a Day.
An aging “made man” in the Costa crime family, Giovanni “Nino” Cinquimani (a chameleonic David Proval) is faced with a dilemma when he is told to give up his mob boss brother Pasquale “Pat” Cinquimani (Vincent Pastore) as part of a one-day immunity deal also known as "a queen for a day." Nino’s wary lawyer, Sanford Weiss (David Deblinger) urges his client to take the proffer agreement, but Nino’s loyalty to his brother and the crime family, as well as a lover from the past (in one of the more astonishing plot twists of the production) torment his final decision. Mononymously-named actress Portia plays the biting, disdainful federal prosecutor (Patricia Cole) who pushes Nino’s buttons, resolute in her determination to hear damning evidence against Pat Cinquimani.
David Proval’s blustering depiction of a “made” man slowly brought to pieces by his secretive past easily carries the production. Nino's apprehensions balloon as the primary players (Proval, Portia and Deblinger) triangulate about the stage in choreographic strategy. Rubin plays with the script’s alluring tension between masculinity and effete weakness to great effect, and the almost-bare stage is appropriate for the passions that seize the anguished main character.
Proval and Pastore’s staccatic, shoulder-shrugging gestures and drawling, Italian-Brooklyn accents are immediately reminiscent of that particular brand of Mean Streets machismo and swear-happy dialogue from The Sopranos. Indeed, Proval brings some of his Sopranos character Richie Aprile’s irascibility to Nino, as does the hugely impressive Vincent Pastore, whose Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero was a popular mobster on the HBO show. Even Proval’s respective character histories are striking in their coincidence: Richie Aprile worked for his younger brother, a famed mob boss, as does Nino, who serves as a caporegime under Pat, “the boss of all bosses.” But the presiding influence on this nostalgic play is the Italian-American neighborhood sentimentality that seeps through the mannerisms and the accented confrontations, and it is the result of a series of deliberate choices in the script, written by lawyer-turned-playwright Michael Ricigliano, Jr.
Through Nino, Ricigliano paints a picture of a cohesive Brooklyn community, heavy with Italian-American tradition: “The widows dressed in black for husbands who’d been dead for 30 years. All the old-timers played brisc and raced pigeons… we played stickball all day and parents thought nothing of smacking their neighbors kids like their own.” The famed mafiosi loyalty to blood and crime family kinship are adequately expressed as well: both Nino and Pat have a deep, unfettered love for their mother (who isn’t “crazy” like other Sicilian women), hatred of all things weak, and an ambition for all things "respectable." Consequently, Nino’s eventual breakdown becomes especially pitiful; there is a minute-long scene where the two brothers cry together on stage. Even when the dialogue slips into heavy-handed commentary—the gentrification of north Brooklyn is taken particularly seriously—the performances offset it with careful, nuanced delivery. A lengthy exposition on a Catholic festival’s annual Dance of the Giglio is punctuated beautifully with Proval’s breathy singing voice.
In a splendid cooperation of scenic and lighting design by Andreea Mincic and Isabella F. Byrd, there is a set and light change halfway through this intermission-less drama, but it involves none of your blacking-out, between-scenes music that usually accompanies the scraping of furniture or taps of hurried footsteps across the changing stage. The play ends on an irreverently cinematic note, suitably shocking and Scorsese-esque in its scope. The violence that usually accompanies a tale about mafiosi crime families explodes after an emotional peak, leaving the viewer somewhat distressed as the lights return and the actors take their bow. But genre-lovers will thrive on the conscious nods to wiseguy braggadocio, the darkly humorous jibes at crime culture, and an undeniably potent assembly of old Sopranos stars. Or, if you’ve only watched The Godfather once and think Gotti is a kind of Italian cheese, you get to see a most unusual mob boss sing and weep on stage.
A Queen for a Day is written by Michael Ricigliano, Jr. and directed by John Gould Rubin. It runs through July 26 at Theatre at St. Clement’s (423 West 46 St. between 9th and 10th Aves.). Evening performances are Sunday through Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinees are held on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available for purchase by phone at 866-811-4111 and 212-352-3101 or online at http://aqueenforadayplay.com/tickets/.