Once, when I tried to argue that reality and game show TV is at an all time, depraved high, my father laughingly countered with Queen for a Day, a show that ran in the 1950s and '60s when he was a kid, featuring female contestants who competed with one another to tell the best, tragic life story and win the title of "Queen for a Day." Onstage now at Theatre at St. Clement's, A Queen For A Day is a shadowy gangster tale by Michael Ricigliano, Jr., in which Giovanni "Nino" Cinquimani seems to be competing for a title of his own. The play opens in an abandoned warehouse, where Pasquale's lawyer is feverishly trying to explain a Proffer Agreement he's been offered by the FBI, in which Pasquale is granted full immunity for one day, so long as he shares all the shocking details of his crime riddled past to a federal agent hell bent on taking his brother down. The agreement, of course, is called "Queen for a Day." "I tell the best sob story," Pasquale connects the dots, "and I get to be the queen."
A sizable portion of the play centers around Patricia Cole, a female, African-American federal agent (played by Portia), shouting and bullying Nino into giving her hard evidence to use against his baby brother and high level mafioso, Pasquale Cinquimani. Meanwhile, Sanford Weiss, Esq. (played by David Deblinger) flip flops between shocked and concerned with each new revelation from Nino, sweating and hissing and whining, "don't tell her about the Escrow account!"
The Cinquimani brothers add an air of legitimacy to the whole affair, with enough wiseguy roles between the two actors to make Scorcese blush. David Proval, who plays elder brother Nino, got his start in the gangster classic Mean Streets. Proval is believable, and at times even heartbreaking, in his nostalgic soliloquies about his Italian upbringing in Brooklyn. The play presses hard on the notion of revelation versus concealment, and indeed, we sense that Nino is relieved, even thankful to unleash the burden of memory. This however, is of course a weakness, and a fatal misstep in a seedy underworld of crime and tradition. Vincent Pastore, in the role of Pasquale Cinquimani, evokes gasps of excitement and fear from the audience from the minute he appears on stage, the perfect embodiment of the gangster, ruthless and unapologetic in his rise to power.
When the play finally gets where it's going, or when it attempts to depart from generic expectations and "gangster tropes," it isn't all that surprising, largely due to the play's inability to show rather than simply tell. And by tell, I mean shout -- clunky, verbose treatises on gentrification, the "connection between organized crime and organized religion," and a convoluted revelation that gets garbled and lost. The characters spend so much time shouting at each other that shouting quickly loses any gravitas or fear inducing possibility, and the most effective moments creep in when everyone finally just calms down and listens.
As a venture into the venerable, beloved genre of the Gangster, A Queen for a Day holds its own, chock full of enough wiseguys, cold-blooded plot twists, and mentions of "la famiglia" to make any genre aficionado more than satisfied.