PROVIDENCE — One day 20 years ago, I called up Buddy Cianci at his City Hall office and asked him to play TV critic. He was happy to oblige.
I was curious about his opinion of “Providence,’’ a sentimental NBC family drama that was set in the city where Cianci reigned supreme as mayor, at least until the feds caught up with him and he was convicted of racketeering conspiracy for running a criminal enterprise out of City Hall.
On that day in 1999, though, that was still a couple of years in the future. Hizzoner cheerfully gave “Providence’’ a rave, but he also had a self-promotional anecdote at the ready. Cianci told me about a conversation he’d recently had with the mayor of Baltimore, who supposedly expressed deep envy at the flattering TV image of Cianci’s city that was being broadcast to millions of “Providence’’ viewers each week, in contrast to the bleak view of Baltimore in NBC’s “Homicide.’’
In other words, the anecdote was not just about Providence but also about Vincent A. (Buddy) Cianci Jr. By then, for good or ill — and there was plenty of both during his two tumultuous tenures in office — Providence’s identity was virtually indistinguishable from his own, in Cianci’s mind and in the minds of plenty of Rhode Islanders.
So it’s very hard to argue with the title of George Brant’s “The Prince of Providence,’’ a stage adaptation of the book by longtime Providence Journal reporter Mike Stanton that is now making its world premiere at Trinity Repertory Company. “The Prince of Providence’’ has a lot more than a snappy title going for it, however.
Let’s start with Scott Aiello’s electrifying, tour de force portrayal of Cianci. The 14-member Trinity Rep cast is good all around, but the others draw energy from the molten core of Aiello’s performance. Aiming not for mimicry but for that quality Cianci had of being both larger and louder than life, the inexhaustible Aiello simply never lets up as he takes us on what amounts to a journey through Cianci’s id, refracted through his political career, personal life, and volatile personality. It’s a ride that is uproariously entertaining and chilling by turns.
None of which Aiello could do, of course, had Brant not written a play that is as quick-witted, sharp-edged, unpredictable, unstoppable, unsettling, and generally complicated as Cianci himself. Starting as a broad comedy before finding a more solid groove as a blackly comic drama, “The Prince of Providence’’ is directed with full-speed-ahead zest and imaginative flair by Taibi Magar. It plays like a cross between “The Last Hurrah,’’ “Prizzi’s Honor,’’ and “Citizen Kane.’’
Standouts in the cast, all of whom but Aiello play more than one role, include Rebecca Gibel as Sheila Cianci, the tough-as-nails wife whom Buddy makes the mistake of betraying; Charlie Thurston as Herb DeSimone, the mentor who finds it increasingly hard to shut his eyes and ears as Buddy slides deeper into thuggery; and Erick Betancourt as Mickey Corrente, Cianci’s hulking, ever-loyal campaign manager.
“The Prince of Providence’’ is laced not just with inside jokes and local references — if you cherish the folkways and oddities of Rhode Island, there is much for you here — but also a host of meta-theatrical devices that go beyond the usual conventions of biographical drama. Those meta touches begin with the opening scene, when cast members range themselves around Aiello, each holding a mannequin head with a different toupee for him to choose from. Then it’s showtime.
The risk with this project was that “The Prince of Providence’’ would not be faithful to Stanton’s tough-minded book, that the stage adaptation would be a whitewash, a sanitized picture of Cianci as just a lovable rogue. Any honest portrait has to immerse us in both Cianci’s undeniable charisma and in his never-far-from-the-surface dark side; has to acknowledge his indispensable role in the renaissance of Providence and also the corrupt way he exploited that renaissance to enrich himself. For the most part, “The Prince of Providence’’ fulfills that obligation.
Admirably, the production does not gloss over the allegation that Cianci raped a woman at gunpoint whom he met while at law school in the mid-1960s. (Cianci always denied that allegation, invariably noting that he was never charged.) As for the infamous episode in which Cianci was accused of holding captive and assaulting a contractor he believed to be having an affair with his wife, from whom Cianci was separated at the time, it is vividly reenacted in “The Prince of Providence,’’ complete with a cigarette jabbed in the eye.
Despite the ugly chapters in the Cianci story, Trinity Rep is clearly banking on local nostalgia for a figure who won election half a dozen times and is still remembered fondly in some quarters, three years after his death at 74. Quite literally banking: Top-priced tickets are going for an eye-popping $250 apiece, the highest regular-ticket prices Trinity Rep has ever charged.
“The Prince of Providence’’ is no tale of innocence lost or ideals abandoned. Even when novice mayoral candidate Cianci is positioning himself as the “anti-corruption candidate’’ while running as a Republican against the potent Democratic machine, Aiello lets us see the gleam of avarice, power hunger, and hubris in Buddy’s eyes.
What does come across as genuine, however, is Cianci’s determination to revive Providence. “This city has been the armpit of New England for too long,’’ he says. If Boston mayor Kevin White was known as “the loner in love with the city,’’ Cianci was the extrovert in love with the city.
Playwright Brant makes sure we see in “The Prince of Providence’’ that it was a self-interested kind of love. Pressured from his first day in office to deliver municipal jobs for the unions that backed him and building projects for the contractors who bankrolled him, Cianci quickly masters the game and learns how to turn it to his own benefit.
In a sense, he even manages to learn the theater game. Via an ingenious denouement to “The Prince of Providence’’ that I shall not spoil but that feels consistent both to the character we’ve been watching and the man we remember, Buddy Cianci gets the last word.
THE PRINCE OF PROVIDENCE
Play by George Brant. Based on the book by Mike Stanton. Directed by Taibi Magar. Presented by Trinity Repertory Company, Providence, through Oct. 27. Tickets $49-$250, 401-351-4242, www.trinityrep.com