If there are two topics that Colin Quinn loves to discuss, they’re race and New York City, so his new one-man show might be the best use of his talents to date. The New York Story, which opened Friday at the Cherry Lane Theater, is an ode to Quinn’s hometown, told through the various immigrant groups who have taken root in the city since the Dutch first displaced the Native Americans back in the 1600s.
Quinn is clearly a history buff – his last two shows focused on the history of the world and the US Constitution – but New York has always been his true love. With the city’s skyline projected on the back wall and the small stage scattered with apple boxes and fire escape ladders, the set evokes the New York City of Quinn’s childhood that lives on in his imagination – gritty but communal, cruel but well-meaning. Wearing a t-shirt, hoodie, and bright red sneakers, Quinn blends seamlessly into the unflashy setting as he begins perched on a brownstone stoop.
Unsurprisingly for a veteran standup, he’s at his best when he’s just talking to the crowd. The theatrical conceits that force him to move around the stage are sometimes fitting, like a raised platform that doubles as a subway, and occasionally awkward, like one joke delivered while hanging off a ladder. They seem designed for an actor who needs action to move a monologue along, while Quinn is one of New York’s classic storytellers who can sell his stories with no props, sets, or lighting cues, just his own creativity and fantastic knowledge.
He’s working off a script, but he riffs and runs with whatever’s hitting. His straightforward style lets him flip through impressions in a simple, effective manner. The show has the same joke rate of a good standup set, in the comfortable environs of off-Broadway. It’s comedy for people who are scared of clubs, and theater for comedy lovers put off by the pretension of the stage.
His look into the history of New York is fascinating, and his deep dive into the city’s history means within the jokes, he’s got something to teach. “Bedford, Stuyvesant, Bushwick, Brooklyn, The Van Wyck, knickerbockers, stoop, Yankees. Those are all Dutch words. Fuck is a Dutch word. So if you’re on your stoop in Brooklyn, saying ‘fucking Yankees,’ you’re speaking Dutch.”
The show’s move through history is a reminder that there were no “good old days” of New York; it’s always been a city in flux. Even Quinn, who would clearly rather return to the ‘70s version of the city, acknowledges the perks of the newer, friendly NYC. “I’m glorifying New York like it was this great city,” he says towards the end. “The people were great but the city was a hellhole. It was a crime-ridden hellhole. We forget now. We complain that they Disney-fied Time Square. Like it was so great back then. That Giuliani – we asked him to clean it up. Then he cleans it up and we’re like, ‘You went too far. You’re OCD.’”
And in declaring that exploring the ethnicities that make up the city is the only way to tell New York’s story, he’s challenging anyone to declare his stereotyping as divisive or insensitive. But his evident love of the multiculturalism of his native town means that what might come across as unnecessarily sectarian from another comic is purely affectionate from Quinn.
When he starts talking about current state of New York, and his belief that the culture is too sensitive to honestly discuss race and ethnicity, things fall a little flatter. In comedy, Quinn holds a unique position. He’s long been an advocate for complete honesty in comedy, with no niceties or whitewashing. Yet he’s too smart to be lumped with the fraction who offend for sport and then feel persecuted when people find their personalities repugnant. If everyone thought – and more importantly, talked – about race the way Quinn does, it would be a lively, heartfelt conversation we’d all look forward to having.
Elise Czajkowski is a freelance comedy journalist.