Jerry Seinfeld’s name, writ large as the helmer of “Long Story Short,” is attracting heavy foot traffic to the trendy collegiate venue in NYU-istan where Colin Quinn’s one-man show is playing a limited gig. No surprise there. But strong word of mouth should, by right, deliver Quinn’s inspired comic take on the history of the whole world (in just under 75 minutes) directly to some small Broadway playhouse — and then on a tour of regional theaters eager for an articulate brand of comedy bearing legitimate signs of intelligent life.
The intimate theatrical setting works better than some noisy club for this show’s clever material, which represents one misanthropic comic’s perspective on the entire history of human civilization. To his jaundiced eye, it all looks like one long, bloody schoolyard brawl.
Aside from a chair, the stage is bare. But the blowups of ancient maps that frame the stage prepare us for a journey, and a slideshow of mock-heroic scenes depicting the rise and fall of great empires suggests it’s going to be a fun trip.
Dressed down and sporting a military brush cut, Quinn steps into this pseudo-academic setting looking like a short order cook who fell asleep on the D train and got off at the wrong stop. But that lack of professorial presence is exactly what makes his man-on-the-street lecture on the history of the human race so hilarious.
“No offense, but we’re the descendents of the pricks,” he declares, putting his own special spin on Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest. Since it’s not in our nature to share — no more than we would give ground on a supermarket checkout line — it follows in his mind that civilization advances in an endless series of violent battlefield skirmishes.
From the earliest cavemen, through the Sumerians and Babylonians, and spanning the generations of the Old Testament, “it was all mindless brutality.” Until we get to the Greeks, who wrote poetry, invented theater and spouted philosophy between wars.
Quinn likes the Greeks, even though they did let their kids watch 40 hours of theater a week. But their days are numbered in his world, where the smart guys are constantly at war with the tough guys, usually over women and real estate. (“Smart guys scored during the Age of Reason and the Renaissance,” he instructs us. “Tough guys got laid during the Machine Age and the Industrial Revolution.”)
The Brooklyn-born comic (whose earlier one-man show, “Colin Quinn — An Irish Wake,” played the Helen Hayes) hits his stride when he gets to the classical world’s supremo tough guys, the Romans, whom he presents as burly construction workers (“Local XVIII”), flipped into Mafia henchmen by their capo di tutti capi, Caesar. But he’s no less inspired when he gets to the haughty Brits, whose ultimate weapon is their sneering contempt for every other nation in the world except elegant, effeminate France, “with her cigarette, her kohl eyeliner, her shag haircut,” forever unattainable.
While the show’s historical sweep undoubtedly owes a lot to dramaturg Dani Vetere, and while the breathtaking pace can be traced to Seinfeld’s helming, the offbeat life lessons that Quinn draws from the works of man put the true stamp of genius on his brand of parody.
All of history becomes his for the taking. Every convulsive shift in the fortunes of great nations reminds him of some homely scene familiar to everyone, from the backbiting gossip on a family car trip to rap artists bragging on their flashy jewelry.
In this reductive fashion, the U.S. efforts to impose democracy in the Middle East are like a drunken party girl’s attempts to get her wallflower friend to shake a leg. (“Come on, get up, Afghanistan, it’s time to have fun and dance!”)
The infighting that broke out when Africa broke up into separate nations in the 1880s reminds him of “six Brooklyn high schools letting out at the same time.”
To this scruffy sidewalk philosopher, this world of ours, where everybody hates everybody else and can’t wait to fight about it, is no more civilized than “a nightclub parking lot at around 3:30 in the morning.” As Jerry Seinfeld might say — and probably did — “Makes sense to me.”