My parents spent a great deal of money on my education. First they chose a strict parochial grammar school for 8 years, then I was sent off to an exclusive prep school for 4 years, and finally my education was capped off with a fancy private college. All this was done to ensure that I had a good working knowledge of the world. Yet my European-born mother still sadly shakes her head when I make such public blunders as exclaiming to a roomful of people that I have no idea where Holland is in relation to Norway. “I always thought they were the same place!” I remark, blithely, with not even a hint of embarrassment. “Aren’t they, though?” I go on – digging the hole deeper. Oh – American Education – how you failed me. Surely someone could have made politics, history, and geography stick in my brain in a way that made sense so that I don’t continually shame my family?
After spending a night with Colin Quinn as he delivered his one-man show Long Story Short (directed by Jerry Seinfeld) it’s obvious that he was that someone. Colin Quinn is like that teacher who comes into the urban school and makes all the tough kids love learning. But he already knows that. In fact, at some point during Long Story Short, he even does a spot on send-up of every To Sir With Love / Stand and Deliver / Dangerous Minds movie ever spit out by Hollywood — though his version ends with the teacher taking a job at the cushy prep school at the end of it all. The very prep school where I would have benefited so much! So you see how we’ve come full circle here. But wait! That’s only the introduction . . .
By anthropomorphizing (see, there’s your fancy private college education!) countries into spurned jealous lovers, hedonistic stoners, single-minded over achievers, disinterested, sarcastic fashionistas, brooding, depressed fatalists and cocky barroom brawlers, Quinn was finally able to make sense of history for me. And all in 75 minutes, no less.
Backed only by a rear screen projection and some huge steps that at any given moment can act as a Greek Theatre, a Roman Colosseum or a Mayan Temple (scenic and projection design by David Gallo) Quinn delivers sharp observations and gives a copious lesson of the world by way of a steady stream of dead-on interpretations that illustrate where we came from and where we are now.
“An unexamined life is not worth living”, said the Greeks – and yet, Quinn continues, for all this examination we’re doing these days, are we any richer for it? Glance at any Twitter stream or Facebook news feed – truly: do we need to be examining ourselves this much in order to know who we are?
So, the lesson begins in Greece as we start in the cradle of civilization. The Greeks – who invented the Gods so that people could blame their problems on something and who also invented Theatre so they could gossip about their neighbors. (Oedipus: Hey – that show last night? Was that about me? Sophocles: No! What? No! Oedipus: Cause, you know, I killed my father and then slept with my mother. Just saying. Sounded like you were talking about me. Sophocles: Yeah? Really? No – no. It’s based on a lot of people I know. It’s a compilation.).
Quinn goes into Magellan mode, circumnavigating the globe and no culture, civilization, or stereotype is left unexamined. Quinn’s talent for boiling down the essence of entire countries, equally highlighting their failings as well as their fortunes makes for a hilarious world tour. From the Holy Roman Empire (who were covered in more jewels than the attendees at a Death Row Records release party), to The British Empire (the small country who controlled the world not with Might but with Contempt), to the French who were portrayed as England’s emotionally distant, but somewhat interested lover (whose Facebook Relationship Status would have been “It’s Complicated“) – this all crystallized years of history for me. Oh – NOW I get it.
There’s more of course: The Mayans, hanging out and smoking pot on the biggest stoop in the world, The Russians who (unlike the Americans, who are continually in the pursuit of happiness) perfected the art of being depressed, The Chinese (One Country, One Leader, One Haircut). No one escapes as Quinn does spot on accents yet teaches a lesson that would put any history teacher to shame.
By then end, when Quinn turns the entire world into a bar at 3am – with the United States as a cocky redneck who had a few too many and is itching for a fight, insisting that Iraq was hiding a gun, and taking the fight out into the parking lot where the world’s countries are hanging out in assorted stages of inebriation and various levels of booze-inspired loyalty, well – the moment is inspired brilliance. From Quinn’s ability to transition effortlessly from one culture to another, to just the way he shows that, when boiled down, it really all amounts to the same thing – well, that bit alone required a standing ovation.
Which Quinn got – deservedly – at the end of his 75 minutes.
Simply put – this is a smart show that delivers big laughs. A must-see for anyone who really wants to understand the George Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. If you’ve only had a passing acquaintance with Colin Quinn all these years, you’ll leave The Helen Hayes theatre a huge fan. If you already start out as a fan, you’ll have renewed appreciation for Quinn’s deft comic timing and his spot-on observations. No matter how you walked in, you’ll walk out with a little more understanding of your fellow man. You know – That Guy.
~~~Colin Quinn Long Story Short Extended Through February 5th! Performed by Colin Quinn Directed by Jerry Seinfeld . Helen Hayes Theatre 240 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
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