The Showman

Trinity Repertory Theatre puts the complicated life of Buddy Cianci onstage for the first time

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Obviously, Buddy Cianci should star in a stage play. Why not? The man did everything else. He spent 21 years in office. He prosecuted gangsters. He hosted his own radio show. He sold marinara sauce. He attended Little League games. He kept multiple mistresses. He sometimes flew around in a helicopter. He rose to unprecedented heights of political power; he was convicted of racketeering; he spent more than four years in “a federally funded gated community.” And on and on.

But you know all this – whether you live on the East Side or in Honolulu – because the posthumous Buddy Cianci is even more famous than the living Buddy Cianci. Crimetown, which is basically just a chronicle of Cianci’s breakneck life, has become one of the most successful podcasts of all time. David Mamet, the iconic tough-guy dramatist, allegedly wrote a screenplay about him. And even if you skip Cianci’s own autobiography, Politics and Pasta, you may enjoy Mike Stanton’s 2003 bestseller, The Prince of Providence: The True Story of Buddy Cianci, America’s Most Notorious Mayor, Some Wiseguys, and the Feds.

This is the book that Trinity Repertory Company now adapted for stage, minus the cumbersome subtitle. This is the world premiere that Rhode Islanders have been clamoring for. This is the production that the Boston Globe dubbed “the new Hamilton.” By the time you read these words, the entire run may be sold out.

“It’s such a fascinating, captivating story,” says Tyler Dobrowsky, associate artistic director at Trinity Rep. “It’s almost Shakespearean.”

“He was, and is, a very divisive figure,” says Taibi Magar, the show’s director. Like a mix of Hamlet and Lear, Cianci made choices that touched on bigger themes. “I hope the audience walks away pondering the larger questions underneath his story: What made him that way? Was he always that way, or is the system engineered for corruption? How did the leading prosecutor of corruption – in his time – become (arguably) the most corrupt politician we have ever had? Also, why did this story happen in Providence? What is the story of this city?”

A play about Cianci might have been produced anytime in the past few years, but Trinity had to wait for the film rights to expire, because they were bundled with the theatrical rights. Indeed, Stanton has reportedly entertained several dramatic adaptations of his book, but none of them ever panned out. Once the rights ran out in 2016, the Trinity staff saw their chance. With Stanton’s blessing, Trinity could bring that story to life, beneath spotlights, in the heart of Cianci’s hometown.

But how do you solve a problem like Vincent Cianci, Jr.? How do you turn such an epic life into a play? His career is outsized, too colorful to summarize in two hours. What moments do you pick? How do you paint such a controversial figure, such a prismatic personality? Do you include his military service? Do you mention his last-minute engagement to a model half his age? How much time do you dedicate to the assault charges, and how much to the racketeering trial? Couldn’t his relationship with former mayor Joseph Paolino, both combative and fraternal, become its own miniseries? How do you put an entire urban facelift – the downtown mall and rerouted rivers that Cianci championed – on a single stage, if at all?
 
The answer: very carefully.
 
The first step is to hire a confident playwright. George Brant has penned dozens of scripts, and his last contribution to Trinity, Into the Breeches!, was also a historical drama. Before he settled in New York, Brant lived for a decade in Providence, and he knows the city intimately.
 
Next, you build a story around Cianci’s life, showing major events in chronological order. The first act follows his first term in office, concluding with the brutal interrogation of Raymond DeLeo – by far his most infamous chapter. In the second act, we see Cianci’s return to power, the FBI investigation that brought him down, and the prosecution that (sort of) ended his political career.
 
But you have to finesse the details. At least one character is a composite of two real-life people, and much of the dialogue is imagined. Unlike, say, The Laramie Project, The Prince of Providence is not documentary in nature; the play recreates real people, events, and one liners as dramatic scenes. Despite all the broadcasts, depositions, and hidden cameras, there’s a lot of history that no one recorded, and a playwright like Brant needs to connect the dots on
his own.
 
Finally, you anchor the production in a single place. The scenes unfold in several locations: in the mayor’s residence, in a radio booth, in a courthouse, even in a moving car. Yet the main set, designed by Sara Brown, found its inspiration in the Alderman Room, one of the chambers in City Hall. Here, the walls are adorned with portraits of past Providence mayors – perhaps symbolizing the legacy of office. Using “lights and other stage tricks,” the audience will be whisked from one place to the next, but the background is always the stately home of City government.
 
A year ago, Brant brought his script to Trinity to be read aloud. This kind of play is tricky; its story is based on the exploits of an actual person, and it covers 30 years of local events. But the read-through was a smash. The Trinity staff loved it.
 
“He’s an excellent, excellent writer who’s familiar with Providence,” says Dobrowsky. “Everyone in the room was so impressed with how George was able to tell the story. Everyone was like, ‘This is going to be amazing.’”

Retelling these events isn’t easy, but the hardest part about the Cianci story is telling it the right way. Once he was released from prison, the former mayor was fairly open – even good-humored – about his foibles in office. Yet people still love him. To this day, supporters insist that the ends justified the means. Cianci dedicated his life to lifting Providence out of the doldrums. Love him or hate him, there is no way to imagine our capital without his influence.
 
As Judge Ernest Torres put it, at the end of the Operation Plunder Dome trial: “There appear to be two very different Buddy Ciancis. The first is a skilled and charismatic political figure, probably one of the most talented politicians Rhode Island has ever seen. [The other] presided over an administration that is rife with corruption at all levels.”
 
Trinity has handled delicate topics before: Boots on the Ground told the story of Iraqi war veterans from Rhode Island; the script was based on actual interviews. The America Too series is similarly based on real conversations, dramatizing up-to-the-minute social issues like DACA, race relations, and police conduct.
 
Yet Cianci is a special case. The common refrain is, “Everybody has a Buddy story.” Magar only spent three years in Providence, while a student at Brown, but even she has a story. “The only time I ever encountered him was at The Columbus Day Parade in 2014, as he was campaigning for the election that year,” Magar recalls. “I remember seeing a general hubbub about half a mile down Atwells, and then slowly a crowd gathered around and behind him. It was very cinematic. I remember mostly just finding him mysterious, how could someone be so loved and so hated?”
 
Thanks to Crimetown, millions of people around the world know the intricacies of Cianci’s life, that strange imbalance. From a theatrical standpoint, Brant has tried to humanize Cianci, to explore his many virtues and vices.
 
“We’re not necessarily saying Buddy was a really good guy, but we’re not condemning him, either,” says Dobrowsky. “He was a pugnacious fighter, but also a charismatic person. There are people who consider him a criminal, but also really like him.”
 
The Trinity staff is expecting a vocal response. The story is close to local hearts – and lest we forget, Cianci passed away only three years ago. As with all Trinity productions, the theater will host a semi-formal talk, Context and Conversation, on October 7 at the Alderman Chambers in City Hall.  Hosted by Christina Bevilacqua, Trinity’s “conversationalist in residence,” the series gives any ticket holder the chance to ask questions and hear more about the play.
 
There’s only one downside to producing this play in 2019: Cianci himself isn’t around to see it. If you know the man, you can just picture him socializing in the lobby. You can imagine him waving from his seat on opening night, absorbing applause. What would he think of Scott Aiello, the New York-based actor who will portray him onstage? What would he say of Rebecca Gibel, the actress playing his wife Sheila? The man loved attention, and he knew himself well. When the curtain fell, what zinger would he have offered?
 
“I have been called many things in my career,” Cianci once wrote. “I’ve been ‘America’s most innovative mayor,’ a ‘colorful character,’ and a convicted felon. But no one has ever called me shy.”