Words are a storyteller's tools. And stand-up comics, especially those who practice the long form, as Colin Quinn masters in his one-man history lesson "Long Story Short," are storytellers.
Although Quinn says he was a lazy student -- he studied a year at Stony Brook University -- this son of Brooklyn schoolteachers is a word scholar. Not that his 75-minute Broadway monologue making its Long Island premiere at Guild Hall sounds like an elocution class. Quinn is still the everyman cynic we remember from "Saturday Night Live." Only smarter. His funny and astute observations on the human race may remind you of another comic who got his start on Long Island, Massapequa native Jerry Seinfeld, who directs the show at a sports-car-with-the-top-down pace.
Quinn's fascination with words is most evident when he explains ethnic tendencies. Jews, he observes, got kicked out of every country they settled in. That's why they have the same word for hello and goodbye: Shalom. Hindus believe in reincarnation. So they have the same word -- kai -- for yesterday and tomorrow. And the fatalistic Spanish use the same word for why and because. (Quinn cheats a bit here: Porque is because and por qué is why. Shall we quibble? Por qué?
Quinn's history of the world begins before history, really, with cave-dweller drawings projected on the video screen that anchors the set, designed by Tony-winning Port Jefferson native David Gallo as a Greek amphitheater accented by a Roman Doric column (dramatic lighting and sound effects by Howell Binkley and Kit Bond). The motif becomes apt when Quinn, citing Greece and Rome, presents one of mankind's most compelling dichotomies: smart guys vs. tough guys. Both try to impress the girls.
Too simple? So are Quinn's ethnic analyses. Italians were the world's first traveling salesmen. So they speak with broad gestures. Tiny England conquered most of the world by mastering the art of contempt. But they carried it too far -- dressing up in red to fight the ragtag Colonials. (You thought American valor won the Revolutionary War?) As for Spain conquering the New World, "They came for the gold and stayed for the drugs."
Quinn has tinkered with the show since Broadway and its HBO telecast. There's a throwaway sexting joke, and his analysis of the current global mess seems more focused now that Greece stands at the precipice of default.
If we had teachers like Quinn, history would be irresistible. Like gossip.
WHAT Colin Quinn's "Long Story Short"
INFO $40-$85; guildhall.org, 631-324-4050