Rome wasn’t built in a day, but comedian Colin Quinn covers that mighty empire’s decline and fall in just seconds, an efficiency that might make Edward Gibbon wonder why he wasted so much paper. Quinn has to move quickly. In his antic solo show Long Story Short, a history of the world in 75 minutes, he aims to cover two million years of human evolution and still let the audience get to their late-supper reservations. That works out to some 27,000 years per minute.
Actually, Quinn’s rapid-fire tour of world events isn’t all that concerned with the past. It gestures toward former times only to permit jaundiced meditations on the present. A discussion of the violence of early man leads to considerations of bad behavior at the supermarket. (Sumerians, they’re just like us!) Aristotle’s philosophy lets him bitch about domineering friends. The rise of Islam somehow occasions a diatribe about hip-hop stars.
Even great historical figures matter only as easy analogies to today: Caesar as a mob boss, Abraham as the first deadbeat dad, Mary, Queen of Scots, as “a crazed Mrs. Doubtfire.” When not emphasizing contemporaneity, Quinn likes to riff on national and ethnic stereotypes, which is actually sort of adorable since he’s incapable of uttering a convincing foreign accent. The Arabs and the Greeks sound suspiciously like New Yorkers. So do the English.
Under Jerry Seinfeld’s direction, Quinn spends the show perched in front of a large video screen that displays a motley collection of terrible paintings and the occasional Raphael canvas. Image research doesn’t seem to have gone beyond a first pass at Google. Considering one picture, of naked men disporting themselves at a Roman port, he seems positively mortified.
The stage also contains an armchair and a side table adorned with a mug, from which Quinn occasionally gulps. Perhaps such props and furnishings are meant to bestow a professorial look on him. They fail. At fiftysomething, in a black shirt and blacker jeans, he still carries himself like the Brooklyn tough of his youth. His bluff, doughy face toggles among annoyance, anger, and frustration. When he smiles, an expression he rarely attempts, it appears strange and somewhat threatening, as if someone has applied lip gloss to a mastiff.
Happily, all that wrath amuses. The observational comedy riffs certainly don’t wow, but the malice with which Quinn delivers them invites volleys of snorts and giggles. Or maybe the crowd is merely relieved at the ease of his lesson. With hardly any names, few dates, parallels to the 21st century inserted everywhere, and some comments that implicate the audience, his lecture makes history seem a terrifically simple discipline. He smoothes over the least complexity. Why do we lack peace in the Middle East? Because we can’t even share an elevator.
In Quinn’s view, the past can be summed up as one long catalog of brutalities and irritations. That annoying checkout clerk and Mongol hordes? They’re just the same. (Perhaps Quinn has read Hegel, who noted, “We learn from history that we never learn anything from history.”) If this seems a rather bleak outlook, he keeps the jokes coming at such speed and with such malign delight that you hardly notice. Comedy, like history, is just one damned thing after another.