No wonder Jerry Seinfeld loves this guy. Colin Quinn is the quintessential New Yorker: rude, lippy, pushy, opinionated, pugnacious, and full of attitude — the very qualities he celebrates in “Colin Quinn The New York Story.” Coming on the heels of “Colin Quinn Long Story Short,” his analysis of the known world from the beginning of time, and “Colin Quinn Unconstitutional,” his dissection of our national history, the new show goes back to the roots of New York and traces the individual contributions made to its uniquely abrasive character by the various ethnic groups that settled here.
Quinn isn’t quite the buried treasure he used to be as a standup comic. He’s got a regular role on Lena Durham’s “Girls,” and that’s him playing Amy Schumer’s father in “Trainwreck.” But you get the feeling that these quirky one-man shows of his are what keep him sane. Or happily insane.
The subtext of his new show, which Jerry Seinfeld has directed at the breakneck speed that defines the normal pace of the city, is that we should celebrate our polyglot heritage and lose the politically correct tendency to squeeze everyone into the same mold. And if that means unearthing all the old stereotypical tropes we tried to bury, well, he’s got a million of them — drawn from his “first and last book,” “The Coloring Book” (autographed copies on sale in the lobby) — and they’re all hysterically offensive.
The backdrop for the show is the scene that greets every new ethnic group that arrives in New York. As designed by Sara C. Walsh and luridly lighted by Sarah Lurie, that consists of an inspiring view of an overscaled Statue of Liberty holding the torch of liberty over the harbor — and the front stoop and back alley of the tenement house that will be their first home.
In assembling his composite portrait of the archetypal New Yorker (who is being gentrified out of existence, he laments), Quinn goes back to the real Native New Yorkers, the Lenape Indians, who gave us a taste for tobacco, and moves on to the Dutch, who contributed irritability and cursing — still cherished qualities in this town.
Back in those days, there was no snobbery to our evolving character. The British provided that missing sense of superiority when they set up military headquarters here during the War of Independence. The Germans contributed good deli meat and a “rude-polite” attitude (later perfected by the Greeks), but by that time, the place was getting crowded and unruly with later groups of arriving immigrants.
Quinn hits his comic stride with the waves of Irish, Italian, and Jewish refugees who followed one another to these shores in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, along with the Southern blacks who made their way north to settle perilous New World territories like Brooklyn, where Quinn grew up.
The qualities he claims from each ethnic group for his evolving New York “character” study are all the more hilarious for being so outrageously stereotypical. (The Irish contributed their sarcastic wit, the Italians their sense of drama, the Puerto Ricans their rapid-fire delivery of Spanglish, and the Jews taught everyone the art of complaining.)
But this dynamic show really comes alive with Quinn’s inspired behavioral studies of the various ethnic groups at some shared activity — like sneaking out of class or going on a field trip to the Museum of Natural History. (The Italian kids don’t bother to show up. The black kids walk out with a defiant swagger. Only the Asian and Jewish kids stick around to take notes.) It must be said that later arrivals don’t get the same outlandish treatment — although “the Russians fit right in because they’re naturally contemptuous.”
But once Quinn sums up the New York Personality, he declares it dead. “There are no characters left today,” he says, “now we’re all just basically blah,” so safe and careful and politically correct about what we say, you can hardly hear us yelling and screaming anymore.