PROVIDENCE — Capturing the life, times and personality of one Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. is a high bar, to say the least. But with its season opening production, “The Prince of Providence,” Trinity Rep more than clears it. In fact, it soars above it.
That’s largely thanks to the actor they brought in to play Buddy, Scott Aiello. The Broadway, TV and film veteran is masterful in the role. He manages to capture not only the charisma of the former mayor but also his dark, and at times downright sinister, side.
Aiello’s Buddy is mesmerizing and thoroughly entertaining, from the character’s unlikely rise to the top of Providence politics to his two legendary falls from grace, to his manic, criminal assault on an associate he suspected of having an affair with his estranged wife.
Aiello simply owns the role, in all its complexity. Far from doing his best Buddy impersonation, he puts his own indelible stamp on the part, evoking shades of Michael Corleone but with a whole lot more swagger and humor.
The show is in two acts, separated by Cianci’s two terms in office. In the first, we see his rise from a prosecutor to the mayor’s office as he ousts an entrenched incumbent.
Cianci campaigns as an “anti-corruption” candidate, but he’s clearly not averse to stepping over some ethical, and legal, lines to get what he wants. His closest associates are sketchy characters, and his deal-making with the city’s Democratic power broker runs counter to his professed integrity, but so be it.
The act ends with probably the most infamous page in Cianci’s history, his attack on contractor Ray DeLeo, whom he suspects of having an affair with his first wife, Sheila. (She and Cianci were separated at the time)
It’s a jarring scene, where the mayor tricks DeLeo into coming to his home and assaults him with his fists, a lit cigarette and a fireplace log. Aiello does a remarkable job of showing Cianci’s manic, violent side after conveying the charismatic Buddy earlier in the act.
Cianci left office in disgrace after the assault, but went on to host a popular radio show, which is where the second act picks up.
Trinity cleverly shows the various eccentric, half-crazed, Buddy-loving callers to the show while Cianci sits at the mic, chain-smoking cigarettes and convincing himself that he should run again for mayor.
He does, and narrowly wins a three-way race, thanks apparently to some absentee ballots his longtime associate has somehow managed to deliver in Cianci’s favor.
From there it’s on to a series of re-elections and soaring popularity, but along with that comes a looming investigation by a federal prosecutor, which will ultimately bring Buddy down for a second time and send him to prison.
There’s much more to this show that politics and corruption, however. “The Prince of Providence” also explores Cianci’s sad relationships with women and his penchant for philandering. Rebecca Gibel and Caitlin Duffy deserve kudos for their spunky portrayals of the ladies who put up with Buddy for years but ultimately dump him.
And the play also makes clear Cianci’s enduring support for the arts in Providence, most notably Trinity Rep. Cianci always understood that the arts were essential to having a vibrant downtown, and was always there to help Trinity Rep in times of need and crisis. The repertory company readily admits it would not be in existence if it wasn’t for Cianci.
Which makes Trinity Rep’s commitment to telling the unvarnished story of Buddy all the more admirable. Given all Cianci did for the company, one might imagine it would be all the more open to sugarcoating some of the more embarrassing and egregious episodes of his life. But it doesn’t. Along with the aforementioned fireplace log incident, there is also reference to allegations he sexually assaulted a woman in college, something the mayor denied.
No, the stage version of “The Prince of Providence” portrays Buddy warts and all, just as the book on which it is based did. But in the end, that’s the source of its strength. It is a quintessential American story of ascension to power and fall from grace, and Trinity Rep manages to pull it all off with aplomb.
If I had one quibble with the production it would be with the unorthodox, to say the least, ending, which, without going into detail, seemed an unnecessary departure. But to be fair, the packed audience Trinity Rep’s intimate downstairs theater seemed to love it. So there.
All in all, “The Prince of Providence” is a great night of theater with a masterful actor in the lead. And Trinity Rep announced before the show that it’s already broken its box office record for non-holiday shows.
It probably would have made Buddy smile. Most of it, anyway.