Colin Quinn misses the old New York, a city of iconoclasts and rough edges that disappeared when blond trust-funders infiltrated North Brooklyn and made it hard for him to ride the L train. Quinn, who hails from Park Slope, pines for the reliably tawdry but entertainingly gritty Times Square before it got cleaned up and turned into a leisure zone for Midwestern tourists. He keeps a special place in his heart for New Yorkers who for centuries turned the city into a sanctuary for “the judgmental, the obnoxious, the non-positive.” Where did all those rude, sarcastic, pushy people go? And why is everyone so damned sensitive these days about stuff like race and ethnicity?
The comedian recounts the glory years — basically, from the Native Americans up to the Giuliani administration — in Colin Quinn: The New York Story, a new comic monologue based on The Coloring Book, his screed on the same subject. Quinn, best known for his stint as Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update” anchor, has an appealing presence on stage. He offers an amiable gruffness, served with a mild Brooklyn accent that leads him to hit his consonants while talking fast. In a baggy “Roode Hoek” sweatshirt, this regular-guy stand-up struts around a set that looks like a fire sale from Sesame Street, with milk crates and a fake brownstone stoop. Though he often rushes through the material and swallows the ends of his sentences, his rant invites us along on the premise that we share a local experience of social alienation.
Jerry Seinfeld directed the show (and collaborated on the Broadway venture Colin Quinn: Long Story Short), and it could use a major dose of his self-irony. Quinn sets up his 60-minute act as a tribute: a look back at the people who gave the city the personality it’s rapidly shedding. But jokes about New York’s sanitized, prudish present are few; the show’s nostalgic frame mostly serves as pretext for a parade of good-natured ethnic jokes, intended to celebrate differences.
“Everybody means well, but it’s just gotten too touchy-feely,” Quinn tells us. “It’s like people are walking on eggshells carefully, trying to make sure they don’t offend anyone. You can’t celebrate diversity and have no differences at the same time.” It’s a little hard to swallow the message that the big problem these days is oversensitivity to race and ethnicity. (The West Village audience applauding that sentiment was overwhelmingly white the night I attended.)
If you can get beyond the anti-PC moralizing, Quinn’s got some good ones. (He does an amusing re-enactment of a self-appointed local expert humiliating a lost driver.) But he trots out too many old saws: The British colonials acted like “soccer hooligans.” An Italian neighborhood’s loud voices, crying, and hugging are like “a mini-opera right there in the street.” Which ethnic group brought New York assertiveness and which contributed the swagger? Quinn offers his theories, finding qualities for every tribe while gently mocking them. His humor lands inconsistently (maybe because of those sensitivities he laments), but the comedian never wavers or changes pitch. The show could get a lot funnier — and wield more edge — if Quinn did more to contrast then and now, dwelling longer and more specifically on Gotham’s recent transformation into blandness.
Colin Quinn: The New York Story
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce Street