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“With all our progress, where’s our progress?” Colin Quinn asks at the start of his 75-minute history of global empires, Long Story Short. But this expertly honed monologue is not the usual comic indictment of America’s cultural cringe moments. Instead, it’s a savvy socio-historical tour that zeroes in on the Achilles’ heel of every once-mighty civilization, from cavemen onward.
Playing an 11-week Broadway engagement following its downtown run this summer, the show has been slickly packaged with an amphitheater set and lively projections mixing art, digital graphics and ancient cartography to help keep pace with Quinn’s globetrotting. It also has a marquee-name director in Jerry Seinfeld, whose skill at pinpointing the universally relatable truths hidden in everyday arcana dovetails neatly with Quinn’s observational comedy on a more expansive canvas.
Marrying down-to-earth irreverence with erudition, Quinn specializes in a thinking-man’s spin on the ethnic joke, going beyond familiar stereotypes to ruminate on the cultural and linguistic idiosyncrasies that define each race.
He breaks down humanity into tribal factions in which the dominant force takes hold, until badmouthing breeds dissent and man’s natural tendency toward brawling overtakes him, causing the power map to be redrawn.
The clash between intellect and muscle is a recurring theme, typified by Quinn’s affection for the philosophizing Greeks, taken down by the swaggering, macho Romans. (Caesar’s reign is recounted as a Ray Liotta Goodfellas voiceover.)
Despite his acknowledgment that self-serving brawn invariably triumphs over brain, Quinn’s sympathies lie more with the smart guys than the tough guys, adding an agreeably misanthropic note to his comedy.
Some zingers land better than others, but the Holy Roman Empire, Israel and the Middle East, India, China, Russia, Africa and South America all yield their share of witty insights.
The success of British imperialism is attributed to that nation’s peerlessness in the condescension department, and its military downfall to the unwise fashion statement of red coats that made perfect targets. The Brits also take some licks for their obsession with France, the teasing, unattainable babe across the channel.
While full-length stand-up acts tend to jump from place to place, Quinn and Seinfeld have worked with skill to shape the material into a fluid discourse in the manner of monologists such as Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey.
The connective tissue, unsurprisingly, is the U.S., “the bouillabaisse of fallen empires.” Quinn digresses frequently throughout the show to consider the ways in which the modern world has picked up bad behavior patterns from history. International skirmishes are wryly compared to bickering families trying to get through the holidays.
He dismisses the standard veneration reserved for the Founding Fathers, pointing out that by writing “the pursuit of happiness” into the Declaration of Independence, they created a namby-pamby nation always looking for an impossible quick fix.
Smoothly tying the show’s themes together in a final crescendo, Quinn recaps the Iraq War and invasion of Afghanistan as a sprawling international bar fight that spills out into the parking lot. In the best insult-comedy tradition, no one walks away with their nose unbloodied.
Venue: Helen Hayes Theatre, New York (runs through Jan. 8)
Cast: Colin Quinn
Writer: Colin Quinn
Director: Jerry Seinfeld
Set and projection designer: David Gallo
Lighting designer: Howell Binkley
Sound designer: Christopher “Kit” Bond
Music: Scott Elmegreen
Presented by: Eva Price, Richard Martini, Bruston Kade Manuel & Will Dombrowski, Richard Winkler, George Shapiro, Matthew Salloway, Jack Thomas, Bisno/Frankel/Fireman, Dan Frishwasser, Avram Freedberg & Mary Beth Dale, Allen Spivak
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