Set in an abandoned warehouse in New Jersey bathed in deep grays and dark shadows, iconic figures recognizable to anyone well-versed in mob filmography command the stage.
David Proval—the ruthless, violent capo Richie Aprile of Sopranos infamy, also known for his portrayal of mobster Tony DeVienazo in the Martin Scorsese cult favorite Mean Streets—plays the intense and cunning Giovanni “Nino” Cinquimani, a heavily Italian-lilted Mafioso, speaking of backdoor deals with union presidents and an ill-timed mob hit on a longshoreman before removing the mask of mob-persona and becoming heartbreakingly human.
Vincent Pastore—aka The Sopranos’ “Big Pussy”—is Nino’s brother Pasquale, dubbed “The Prince” by the media in very much the same way “The Teflon Don” had graced so many covers of New York Daily News. Reminiscent of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Pastore plays a giant of violent intimidation. Audiences learn how one who was once an innocent youngster on the road to legitimacy was pulled into “family life” he was never meant for, but took to with prodigal aplomb.
Theater maven Portia, whose resume includes Mama Nadi in the Pulitzer Prize-winning production of “Ruined,” among a long list of acclaimed television and stage productions, transforms the role of US Attorney Patricia Cole into a well-practiced persona. Smart, tough, and acid-tongued, she holds her own with the likes of the Cinquimani brothers in the constantly changing shifts of power.
David Deblinger, who played Sopranos mobster Dr. Rene Katz and who portrays attorney Sanford Weiss, Esq., rounds out the all-star cast.
“A Queen for a Day,” written by playwright and producer Michael Ricigliano, Jr. and directed by John Gould Rubin, counts on audiences’ recognition of these characters: the thick-necked mob boss with a steely glare and hot temper; the mafia captain—an older brother who somehow ended up as the subordinate; the cautionary Jewish lawyer; and the no-bullshit US Attorney, who is an expert on the inner-workings of the “family” because she can never be part of it. You know these guys. You’ve met them in films directed by Scorsese and Coppola, in the banquet booths of certain Long Island restaurants, and in the stories of our oldest generation, whose childhoods in Brooklyn sound as exotic to our suburban ears as the Old Country had been to theirs.
The beauty—and the genius—of this screenplay is that once audiences settle into this well-traveled world, it turns that familiarity on its head and shakes it to its core.
“A Queen for a Day” is the term for a one-day immunity proffer session between an informant and a prosecutor. Nothing revealed in this session can be used against the witness. This is the tool that has been instrumental in tearing down the time-worn infrastructure of the modern-day mob, where one by one, defendants cop plea deals with the government, turning in “family members” in exchange for their own freedom. Or, in the case of “A Queen for a Day,” actual blood relatives.
When Ricigliano, a Long Island attorney by trade, overheard a friend, a former enforcement supervisor for the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mention the term, he immediately had the idea for the screenplay mapped out in his mind.
“I said, ‘Wow! What a great idea for a play!’” Ricigliano tells the Press in a phone interview en route to one of the show’s final rehearsals. “From there I just started writing and writing and writing.”
Ricigliano, 44, grew up in Garden City, Long Island. He maintains a successful career as an attorney, and is raising his family in Locust Valley. He formed Jackson Leonard Productions, LLC with his partner Jeffrey Schneider, with whom he develops and produces feature films, as well as stage and television projects, including scripts for Brooklyn Law, The Scorpion Tale, The Devil’s Banker, and Created Equal based on the book by R.A. Brown. The intersection between a creative mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of the law gives Ricigliano an unlimited well of ideas for stage and screen. Growing up enveloped in Italian-American culture doesn’t hurt either when he’s trying to develop characters.
“Practicing law helps me understand the legal nuances,” he tells the Press. “My father and my whole family are from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A lot of my bedtime stories were either when my father played for the Brooklyn Dodgers or when he was growing up in Brooklyn. You know, growing up, you spend a lot of time with Italians. So a lot of the nuances in the way Italians speak and act, they have a certain cadence—it’s a fact. Italians carry themselves a certain way—especially the ones from Brooklyn. And so all of that is what goes into making a character.”
Although Ricigliano is fairly new to writing, his 2010 film debut, Lily of the Feast, a short, earned multiple accolades, including “Best Short Film” at the 2011 Long Island International Film Festival; its director, Federico Castelluccio (you know him as Carmellas’s man-tease Furio in The Sopranos), won “Best Director of a Short Film” in that competition, and last year, directed its feature-length adaptation. The latter also stars Proval, along with Troy Garity (Jane Fonda’s son) and Paul Sorvino.
“It’s really just getting good people around you. That’s all it is,” he confides to the Press. “Talented people who have been through this before and they guided me in the right way.”
One of those people is director John Gould Rubin, who had run the Greenwich Village-based LAByrinth Theater Company with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rubin recognizes talent when he sees it.
“I really think that the playwright is a prodigy,” Rubin tells the Press. “This is his first play and it’s just better written than it should have been. It’s more skilled than it should have been. He’s a special guy.”
“A Queen for a Day” is based on the largest coordinated organized crime takedown in history—a January 2011 sweep in which the FBI and US Attorney’s Office rounded up and indicted 127 mafia associates. Nino Cinquimani (Proval) is a captain in an unnamed crime family who is pressured to give up his brother, the “Capo de tutti Capo” (Pastore). Deblinger and Portia, the two prosecutors in the play, also hail from LAByrinth, where they’d worked with Rubin before. This ensemble came together in perfect symmetry of well-heeled mob actors and theater natives, balancing the cadences of the dialogue with practiced nuance and emotion.
The depth of acting talent took Ricigliano by surprise, he admits. “A Queen for a Day” is his first theatrical experience, and watching the actors take ownership of characters he’d written, by creating detailed backstories, thrilled him.
“The reason you are who you are is because of a million factors that happened in your life,” Ricigliano says. “How you grew up, who you grew up with, your parents, your friends, your schooling—all of that is what makes you, you. When these actors read a script, they attach themselves to it and then they start making up what their life would have been like before these three hours on Sunday in the winter of 2011. It is really so gratifying that they care so much about that character to really become invested.”
The play explores blood ties, where loyalty comes at a price with profound repercussions that won’t come to light until intense pressure provides a relief valve. Director Rubin keeps the action at a riveting pace, building intensity until an explosive finale unravels shocking revelations that delve into issues of family, sexuality, identity and loyalty.
In one of the most dramatic scenes of the 90-minute performance, Pastore takes the stage, filling the theater with an almost unbearable tension. Known among his fellow mobsters onstage as “Pat,” the younger brother and mafia kingpin has just discovered a stinging betrayal that both shook and frightened the entire house, evident by several minutes of complete and utter silence. He didn’t play a mob boss—he became one, right there, on the stark stage. When his voice, soft-spoken and measured at first, broke into a roar of unrestrained rage, the audience jumped in their seats.
“What can I do to make this right?” is an oft-repeated refrain in the last scene of the play. “Right,” of course, is a debatable term.
As the US Attorney, Patricia convinces Nino that confessions help purge the soul of sin, these religious themes pervade the theater, aptly housed in an off-Broadway space within St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street.
As with most mob-themed productions, the answers to many of “A Queen For A Day’s” recurring questions are inevitably soaked in blood. Righteousness has many avenues, each evocatively explored in this captivating story.
“A Queen for a Day” is running through July 26 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St., New York, NY 10036. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting AQueenForADayPlay.com and calling 866-811-4111.