PROVIDENCE — Few people on the planet relished the spotlight more than the late Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the rascal mayor of Providence from 1975 to 1984 and again from 1991 to 2002. In Rhode Island, that’s known as Buddy I and Buddy II.
Now Cianci is headed for the bright lights again thanks to a new play, commissioned by Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, called “The Prince of Providence,” based on the book by investigative reporter Mike Stanton.
Cianci, who died in 2016, would undoubtedly have been pleased to know that the play, which runs from Sept. 12 to Oct. 27, is generating a big buzz in Rhode Island. Many performances are sold out; Trinity has already extended the run by a week.
Tyler Dobrowsky, Trinity’s associate artistic director, is responsible for commissioning new work for the acclaimed regional theater. Four years ago he reached out to Stanton about turning “Prince” into a play.
Stanton, a former reporter for the Providence Journal, now a journalism professor at the University of Connecticut and a Spotlight Fellow for the Boston Globe, loved the idea. “Buddy always said, ‘We do an opera every day at City Hall.’ I thought it would be perfect to put him on stage,” he says.
Cianci was forced out of office twice, once after pleading no contest to an assault charge and again after being convicted of a federal racketeering conspiracy charge. He was sentenced to five years in prison, which Cianci liked to call “a federally funded gated community.”
Dobrowsky points out that, according to a 2013 resolution of the state’s General Assembly, Trinity is the state theater of Rhode Island. “If we’re interested in portraying the state, this is a central text,” he says. Besides, Cianci is just a great character.
“Here was a man so full of charisma, so gifted as a politician, but he also had this other, darker, side to him,” Dobrowsky says.
In 2017, Trinity recruited playwright George Brant to write the script. Brant lives in Cleveland but spent eight years in Providence. He may be best-known for “Grounded,” which starred Anne Hathaway during its run off-Broadway at the Public Theater in New York. His comedy “Into the Breeches!” debuted at Trinity in 2018.
“We wanted him to make it complicated, make it theatrical, tell the story,” Dobrowsky says. “Don’t glorify Buddy, but don’t vilify him, either.”
Brant said he read Stanton’s book, of course, but also listened to the podcast “Crimetown” and read Cianci’s own book, “Politics and Pasta.” Stanton was present at many of the early script readings and rehearsals to act as a resource.
“I wasn’t driving the bus, but I was on the bus giving directions,” Stanton says.
The play covers a wide period, from Cianci’s first campaign as an anti-corruption crusader in 1974 to his federal corruption trial in 2002.
Trinity chose to stage “The Prince of Providence” in the Dowling Theater, which holds about 260, as opposed to the 500-seat Chace Theater. “There’s an intimate quality to that theater that I find appealing,” Brant says. “The audience really feels included in the room.”
Many in the audience at Trinity will probably have known Cianci. Brant says that notion is “dangerous and thrilling” to him as a writer.
A key to “The Prince of Providence” was finding the right prince, the actor to play Cianci. After a considerable search, Trinity cast Scott Aiello, who plays Tommy Barkow on the Showtime series “Billions.”
“We needed someone who could capture Buddy’s charisma, someone who could land a joke, but also someone who could be threatening when he needed to be,” Dobrowsky says. Trinity also needed an actor who could convincingly play Cianci from his early 30s into his 50s.
Aiello, like Cianci, is a balding man of Italian heritage. Past that there isn’t a strong resemblance between the two. But Aiello says his job is to create an interpretation of Cianci, not an impersonation.
So Aiello spent much of August “in full Buddy mode” — he’s listened to tapes, watched video, read the books. He’s trying to get the posture (“sort of a stocky hunch”) and the vocal inflections. He’s also going to the gym every day at 6 a.m. to prepare for a physically demanding part that has him onstage for virtually the entire show.
“This is a mountain of a role,” he says.
Will Aiello wear a theatrical version of the famous mayoral toupee, which Cianci occasionally called “the squirrel?”
Absolutely. Director Taibi Magar says that at last count there are seven toupees in the show.
Cianci was quick with a quip, and many of his better lines are incorporated into “The Prince of Providence.” But while the show has comedic moments, it is not by any means a comedy.
“We’re trying to paint an honest, 360-degree portrait of Buddy,” says Magar. “And he could be very funny. There’s a lot of absurdity to Rhode Island politics, but there are also the darker moments.”
THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE
At Trinity Repertory Company, Dowling Theater, Providence, Sept. 12-Oct. 27. Tickets from $25, 401-351-4242, www.trinityrep.com
Andy Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.