Colin Quinn is not trying to bring back the ethnic joke, is he? Please, he's much too deep and smart for that, right? And yet, there is a nostalgia -- better, an exasperated, irritated wistfulness -- in his shaggy, fast-moving new 65-minute solo show "Colin Quinn: The New York Story," which contends that false civility has led to "eggshell walking" and homogenized identities. Nationalities and races that have come to New York for the "authenticity" have been flattened into generics.
If anyone can still shoot a little freshness into the well-known limitations of political correctness, this is the guy. Quinn, long past his days at the genially brutal "Weekend Update" anchor on "Saturday Night Live," is on his fourth one-man comedy/psychopolitical history lesson in New York. This one, like the all-encompassing "Long Story Short" on Broadway in 2010, has been directed with a shrewd lack of obvious direction by some pal of his named Jerry Seinfeld.
This piece, based on Quinn's "The Coloring Book: A Comedian Solves Race Relations in America," begins with a silent warning not to expect conventional theater traditions. He comes through the door on a Brooklyn stoop (much like the one in his more fully realized 1998 autobiographical play "An Irish Wake"). Then he stops as if to say "to heck with make-believe," and re-enters from around the door.
Wearing his shlumpy street clothes, his perceptual acuity and his wary eyes, Quinn delivers a dazzling rapid-fire history of the first settlers and their linguistic contributions. (The Dutch brought an abrupt way of cursing; the British "brought a sense of superiority.") As he fast-mumbles through centuries of immigrants, from the Germans to the Italians to the Puerto Ricans and the Greeks, he does not imitate so much as channel, just for a momentary nuance, so that we can see precisely what he means.
For all the enjoyable low-key virtuosity, however, the examples eventually come perilously close to feeling like a list. Finally, when Quinn contends that, in the supposedly good old days, "people were prejudiced without being racist," the distinction feels too easy. "Racism is cruel. Prejudice is funny," he explains, trusting the amusing definitions will clear the whole thing up. At the risk of eggshell-walking, I'm not sure I buy it.
WHEN | WHERE Through Aug. 16, Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St.
INFO $65; 866-811-4111, colinquinnthenewyorkstory.com