Review: ‘Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake’

If you grew up Irish Catholic in Brooklyn, Colin Quinn's solo show may send you into a secular state of grace, but this low-key visit to a neighborhood clan gathering to memorialize a local hero may leave others feeling uninvited to the party.

If you grew up Irish Catholic in Brooklyn, Colin Quinn’s solo show may send you into a secular state of grace, but this low-key visit to a neighborhood clan gathering to memorialize a local hero may leave others feeling uninvited to the party. Quinn, now known as the new “Weekend Update” anchorman on “Saturday Night Live,” is an affable performer, but this show hovers indistinctly between the realms of standup and character-based comedy, without particularly excelling in either genre.

The year is 1976, and the occasion is the wake being held for Jackie Ryan, a man of many facets — sober and drunk, mostly — who is eulogized both formally and informally by a host of local denizens.

Unlike John Leguizamo, to take an example from recent Broadway history, Quinn doesn’t attempt to evoke his characters through complex vocal or physical effects; he doesn’t disappear into them. As a result, they tend to run together — they almost all speak a variation on Quinn’s own gruff Brooklynese, for example, and it’s often hard to tell where the narrator (Quinn himself, more or less) ends and one of his characters begins.

Among the more memorable personalities we meet in this hour-long show, originally developed in 1994 at the Irish Arts Theater, is the chronically stoned J.T., who casually relates the circuitous route by which he ended up committing a popular sin both in the presence of a holy father and literally on top of his grandmother’s grave (“That’s pretty shocking if you don’t know the previous circumstances,” he admits).

The wake also occasions the return to the neighborhood of folks from “as far away as Long Island,” one of whom, Ray, is an amusing picture of the crass climber who thinks he’s escaped his roots when it’s clear to all that they’re still stuck to his shoe. Of his new suburban berth in Long Island he says, “It’s peaceful there. I haven’t got in one fight,” and then proceeds to detail a drawn-out, petty squabble with his next-door neighbor.

The writing by Quinn and Lou DiMaggio is consistently funny, but it’s a little flaccid, despite a somewhat forced use of the seven sacraments as a unifying structure. The stories could be more punchily paced by director Bobby Moresco, and the constant pretense of having the characters react to unseen interlocutors grows wearisome. It’s a device that needs to be used more sparingly.

“An Irish Wake” is also laced with a misty-eyed nostalgia, as more than one character decries the sad decline of the neighborhood culture or relates with comic bluntness the disappointments of life. The lone female character in the show, a maniacally selfless aunt who “would do anything for you as long as you did nothing for her,” is captured nicely in her own words: “We didn’t go after what we wanted. That was too selfish. We went after what was left.”

But amusingly typed as most of them are, the characters don’t really come to vivid life. They all seem to be filtered through Quinn’s own personality, and are more vehicles for amusing anecdotes than fully imagined creations. Such qualms aren’t likely to bother those who share Quinn and DiMaggio’s touchstones — the rites and rituals of a Catholic childhood, the legacy of Irish culture — but aliens to this insular world may find a $50 price for an hour’s worth of these mild comic tales a little stiff.

Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake

Solo; Helen Hayes Theater, New York; 499 seats; $50 top

Production

A DelsenerSlater/Lorne Michaels presentation of a solo play in one act written by Colin Quinn and Lou DiMaggio. Directed by Bobby Moresco.

Creative

Set, Eugene Lee; lighting, Roger Morgan. Opened Aug. 27, 1998. Reviewed Aug. 25. Running time: 1 HOUR.

Cast

With: Colin Quinn.
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