Comedy or tragedy? Play tells infamous mayor’s story onstage

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — In life, he craved the limelight. Now a new stage play is pulling back the curtain on Vincent “Buddy” Cianci, one of the nation’s most notorious mayors.

“The Prince of Providence” is part comedy, part tragedy and full-on farce — just like the larger-than-life politician who put Rhode Island’s capital on the map, often for all the wrong reasons.

Inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Mike Stanton’s biography of the same name, the play explores the city’s love-hate relationship with Cianci. The longtime mayor was forced out of office twice for felonies but still admired for helping transform Providence into one of America’s most vibrant small cities.

“He was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said Stanton, a former Providence Journal reporter who now teaches journalism at the University of Connecticut.

“He had great gifts and great demons, and his angels and devils battled for control. And that battle played out over the landscape of the city of Providence over four different decades: the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s and the 2000s,” he said.

The play premieres Thursday at Providence’s Trinity Repertory Company and runs through Oct. 27; it’s such a hot ticket, the producers have added shows. Actor Scott Aiello portrays the toupee-wearing Cianci during his two stints as mayor, known locally as “Buddy I” and “Buddy II.”

First elected in 1974 as a 32-year-old Republican rising star, Cianci resigned a decade later after pleading no contest to felony assault when he was accused of attacking a man with a lit cigarette and a fireplace log. He was reelected as an independent a few years later, but in 2002 he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 4½ years in federal prison. Cianci reinvented himself as the host of a popular radio talk show before attempting a comeback bid in 2014. He died in 2016.

His Shakespearean story has captivated audiences before. “Buddy Cianci: The Musical” played at the New York Fringe Festival in 2003, and Cianci dominated 2016’s debut season of the acclaimed podcast “Crimetown.”

One of playwright George Brant’s biggest challenges was deciding which Cianci anecdotes to tell in a city where practically everyone seems to have one.

“This is somebody who starts out as a prosecuting attorney. He successfully charges a mob boss and puts him in jail,” Brant said in an interview. “And he becomes someone who’s also charged and imprisoned. If you’re coming in loving Buddy, that will be both reinforced and challenged, and vice versa if you’re coming in with a less loving opinion of him. The goal is to do justice to all sides of him.”

Obie Award-winning director Taibi Magar said she’s trying to tread carefully, capturing in equal measure the quick-witted Cianci’s charisma — he once nicknamed one of his hairpieces “The Squirrel” — and his corruption.

“His actions were very troubling, and I don’t want to ever erase that,” Magar said. “I see him as a fascinating character inside a fascinating city at a fascinating time. His story brings up really potent questions about politics and politicians. What came first: the chicken or the egg? Are politicians corrupt, or does politics corrupt them?”

Brash, brazen and bombastic in life, Cianci has drawn posthumous comparisons to President Donald Trump. Not everyone thinks he’s worthy of the stage: This summer, responding to complaints, a refurbished downtown hotel removed portraits of Cianci from its guest rooms.

“His legacy is not clever, cute or one we seek to champion to visitors,” said educator Kath Connolly, who led that campaign.

But to Stanton, the duplicity of Cianci’s good-versus-evil persona is what makes him such a cinematic character.

“Buddy’s life was a drama,” he said. “He used to joke, ‘At City Hall, we put on an opera every day.’ This is kind of a life imitates art moment.”

Magar, the director, said she hopes audiences will leave “pondering the weight of their vote and how that impacts their cities.”

“What are you willing to excuse in exchange for your comfort and your community identity? What does it mean to be a productive citizen?” she said. “I’d love for young people who might be voting for the first time to be thinking really seriously about these questions.”

(Copyright (c) 2019 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)