PROVIDENCE — Sure, art imitates life. But in “The Prince of Providence,” the wildly popular play about the late Providence Mayor Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., it was often hard to tell where the stage ended and reality began.
Trinity Repertory Company ended up extending the play, which brought to life a polarizing political figure still beloved and reviled in this state, through Sunday, Oct. 27.
On any given night, people portrayed on the Trinity Rep stage could be found in the audience, including Sheila Bentley, Cianci’s ex-wife; Richard W. Rose, the lead prosecutor who convicted Cianci of racketeering conspiracy; and Tony Freitas, the star witness who secretly videotaped Cianci’s top aide taking a envelope-full-of-cash bribe.
Last week, in a true Rhode Island moment, the actor portraying Cianci went into the audience to have his picture taken with Providence’s current mayor — the man who beat Cianci in the 2014 election — Jorge Elorza.
The moment came when Scott Aiello, the actor playing Cianci, went into campaign mode, asking a photographer to snap shots of him with audience members.
Aiello, who knew the mayor was in the house, found Elorza and pointed at the camera as they both grinned. The photographer then handed Elorza the Polaroid.
Journalist and author Mike Stanton, whose book formed the basis for the play, said that scene echoed a campaign tactic deployed by the real Cianci, who would have a photographer take photos of the mayor posing with constituents and then send the photos to those voters.
“It really blurs the line between fiction and reality because suddenly you have the Buddy actor working the crowd,” Stanton said. “And it is like the real Buddy is there, and they are responding to him.”
The audience interaction didn’t end there.
At another point, the Cianci character and an actress portraying Cianci’s daughter, Nicole, distributed jars of “The Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce” to audience members, and he made sure Elorza got one, saying, “hit that guy.”
So what did the real mayor think of coming face-to-face with the stage version of his former foe?
“It was a neat experience,” Elorza said. “I have always deeply appreciated the arts, and I thought it was really enjoyable play, with a Cianci character with deep flaws and loads of charisma.”
Elorza said he was supposed to attend the play’s opening night but his son was sick. So he went to the show last Wednesday.
As he watched the play, Elorza said he was “thinking about this unbroken chain that connects me to every previous mayor in the city’s history.”
He said he was struck by the portrayal of former Providence mayor Joseph A. Doorley Jr., who is depicted sitting at a bar, and all of the drama surrounding Cianci’s City Hall.
“In so many ways, this is the new Providence,” Elorza said. “We run City Hall in a new way. We have professional systems and processes. We try to block out all the noise and all the distractions. In the past, we seemed to have had a lot of noise and distraction coming from City Hall.”
Elorza said Providence still feels the impact of Cianci’s legacy, including decisions that created “challenges” now facing the city.
“The pensions are probably the most pressing example,” he said. “But many of the employees that still work here came into the city during Cianci’s time. I think of the new Providence as running the administration as an $800 million corporation. We try to be professional in everything we do. It’s an entire cultural change.”
Elorza said he doubts anyone will ever write a play about his tenure as mayor. If they do, he joked that it would include a full act of him playing with his son, Omar.
“My lifestyle is very different than Buddy’s,” Elorza said. “It would be very, very boring.”
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @FitzProv.