Colin Quinn and Jerry Seinfeld have been griping a lot lately about political correctness, fretting over some restrictive new world order of comedy in which funny folks just can’t speak their minds about race or gays or women without over-sensitive eggheads getting all riled up. Seems likely they were trying to gin up a little outrage over their latest stage collaboration, the likably grumpy Colin Quinn: The New York Story, a fast-moving comic monologue at the Cherry Lane Theatre unlikely to spur protests, placards or even an indignant Bronx cheer.
Narrowing his focus from the global history of 2010’s Long Story Short to the “rise and fall” of his beloved New York, Quinn takes few liberties (and fewer breaths) with his well-honed formula of cantankerous street wisdom and affectionate ethnic observations. The subject matter suits Quinn and his froggy Brooklynese, as he recounts (and spot-on mimics) wave after wave of five-borough inhabitants, from Lanapes to gentrifiers, staking claim on the land and bequeathing themselves to the New York personality.
No one gets overlooked in Quinn’s exhaustive litany, and if his characterizations are familiar – smug Brits, churchy Irish, handy Mexicans, authority-challenging black kids — they’re too generous-hearted and lacking vitriol to arouse real ire. Not even hipsters get much more than a gruff bear-hug from Quinn (in one of the show’s few references aimed over tourists’ heads, he says today’s Brooklyn-bound L-train resembles a ski lift). His default position of defense against political correctness seems as much humble-brag as genuine iconoclasm.
As subversive ethnic humor goes, The New York Story is pretty fang-free. “Prejudiced but not racist” is how Quinn describes his youthful New Yawk of the 1950s and ’60s, when city dwellers from all over the world could settle their differences with a quick punch-up and be done with it, skipping the endless self-examination of today’s Internet confessionals.
It’s all nostalgic hooey, of course, but Quinn’s vision of old-school, neighborhood-crossing camaraderie is as endearing as it is well-parsed. Confident black high-schoolers arrive late to class “like the Medici checking in on Michelangelo’s progress.” An 80-year-old Italian woman’s idea of liberation? “I’ll cook all night if I want to.” The Pre-Giuliani Port Authority bus station had “pimps lined up like Citi Bikes.”
The New York Story is less sure-footed in its assessment of today’s NYC. Quinn has a modern-day complainer screaming out her window to “turn that music down – unless it’s an appropriate form of social protest.” And a new-style construction worker leering, “Hey, look at that strong independent woman.” That’s New York? That’s not even this universe. How jokes like those got past two pros like Quinn and Seinfeld is a lot less obvious than Seinfeld’s stilted move here/stand there choreography around Sara C. Walsh’s attractive brick-alley set. Perhaps Quinn will relax into a looser, more spontaneous groove before this limited engagement ends August 16. More New York bite, less Big Apple polish.