What is the take-away from Trinity’s ‘The Prince of Providence?’

What is the take-away from Trinity’s ‘The Prince of Providence?’

Scott Aiello as Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr., Stephen Berenson as Robert Haxton, and Erick Betancourt as Mickey Corrente, in Trinity’s “The Prince of Providence.”
One More Thing

On Oct. 27 Trinity Repertory Company brought the curtain down on “The Prince of Providence,” the blockbuster play by George Brant that it commissioned. The production was based on Mike Stanton’s book of the same name.

Chronicling the life and legend of the capital city’s late mayor, Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr., the show began on Sep. 16 and played to sold-out audiences for seven weeks. Other than holiday productions, it was the highest revenue producer Trinity Rep has ever had.

Earlier this month the theater company issued a media release that might be described as bragging rights. It bruited news of the show’s successes, disclosing that over its run more than 13,000 people viewed the play.

They did so in the 250-seat Sarah and Joseph Dowling Jr. downstairs space at the Lederer Theater, which the company claimed was a better venue than the larger 500-plus seat Elizabeth and Malcolm Chace Theater upstairs.

The reason given was that it afforded more intimacy for the audience to experience the epic. Of course it also tended to guarantee 100 percent capacity sell-outs for the entire run and helped to justify the premium prices – $250 for the top tickets – in a house with no bad seats.

So, now that the applause has ended and the last dollar has been counted, what is the cultural significance of this drama that recounts the larger-than-life story of arguably the most controversial leader in the history of Rhode Island politics? The answer from this writer’s perspective is that, properly viewed, the play tells us as much about ourselves as it does about Buddy Cianci. Why? We’ll get to that in a bit.

First, though, a few words about the production itself. Give Trinity its usual good marks for a highly competent and engaging production. In a show that offered everything from a parade of the mayor’s toupees to a live, dancing Independent Man statue, some 14 performers managed to credibly portray most of the high and low points of Buddy’s career.

In the somewhat constricted performance space, viewers got to see Cianci’s City Hall office desk used imaginatively to portray the mayor’s limo and a dinner table (there’s lots of eating in the show), among other things.

Over the dramatic arc of the play we saw the renewal cum renaissance of Providence, Buddy’s fall from grace after assaulting his wife’s alleged lover with a fireplace log, his rise from the political ash heap back to the pinnacle of power, the sad end of his daughter’s life, and so on. His Jekyll and Hyde personality is progressively revealed. Of course, it all culminates in his undoing over accusations of corruption.

Indicted, he was charged with a dozen counts of various types. Ironically, he was convicted of only one, but one was enough to end his time as the longest serving mayor of Providence and send him to jail.

With a couple of forgivable lapses into melodramatic caricature (Providence cops verging into comic opera spear carrier prototypes and thuggish political flunkies suggesting Edward G. Robinson clones) Trinity told the story with as much spice and bite as Buddy’s famous marina sauce.

However, if the re-telling of a tale, the outlines of which savvy local audiences know by heart, were all that transpired on Trinity’s stage, “The Prince of Providence” could be summed up as merely a lively biographical revival of a familiar, if sadly ironic, story, a bitter-sweet re-telling of what might have been if the main character had not yielded to his darker impulses. To that point it was interesting, even compelling, but not electrifying.

No. It took the final 10 minutes of the script to move the production into that rarefied stratum. While the show was still in performance, reviewers were asked not to reveal the ending. Now we can.

Scott Aiello played Buddy. A superb actor, he captured the essence of the man, though he didn’t resemble or sound like him. The finale worked rivetingly well. It was a finish unlike any I have ever seen at Trinity, and I have been reviewing the company since the early 1970s.

Just after he gets the news about being found guilty on the one count that went against him, Aiello as Cianci doesn’t step out of character, but he steps out of the script as it has been evolving to that point. He is still in the persona of Buddy as he goes off on a tirade, a visceral monologue that we can imagine the passionate mayor launching.

In a blazing torrent of invective, he tears into the audience, singling out patrons and demanding to know how much they had to pay to see the play. When he goads a viewer to confess to $250, he laughs and totals up how much the take will be for the day.

Defiant and scornful, he turns on the other actors calling them second-rate and pointing out that they wouldn’t have jobs if he Buddy hadn’t rescued the theater from insolvency. He demeans the playhouse as a flea trap, saying it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for him. At one point he sends an actor playing his police department driver out to bring in a plaque from the lobby wall. He quotes lines from it praising him for all the support the city has given Trinity.

Nothing short of brilliant, the bravura frenzy of self-justification mingled with despair and outright rage makes all that has gone before it fall into place like the tumblers in a safe. The play’s ending has unlocked the message that everything has been a prelude to the revelation of a universal sort of guilt. The ending is a stroke of genius.

While Cianci battled with the light and darkness that were at his core, we watched from the perspective of witnesses or jurors, but now we were right there in the dock with him. Like Trinity which benefited greatly from his largess, many, many of us were complicit in his machinations through our passivity, our silent acceptance. We saw him step out of bounds, but if no-one threw a flag, we cheered the touchdown. If Buddy fell from the height of power to political oblivion because he gave in to venality after doing much good, maybe we in the $200 seats should be looking into a mirror ourselves.

(Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com)

Bottom Lines

John Tucker of Greenville was the first to answer the pop quiz about the late Rev. Stanley Pratt of Greenville Baptist Church. The pastor’s hobbies were the study of handwriting (graphoanalysis) and beekeeping.