"Nanotechnology," observes Colin Quinn at the start of his whip-smart Broadway solo show, "can stop a global plague. But we still need guards at the zoo."
As the Wednesday night audience at the Broadway Playhouse was first trying to follow that remark, then slowly registering its truth, and finally chuckling over the delicious absurdity of the disconnect, Quinn was already articulating the thesis of his "Long Story Short."
You can't change human nature. Or, as he puts in another way, "if you can't share a hospital room, how are you going to share the Middle East?"
Years ago as the Weekend Update anchor on the less frenetic "Saturday Night Live," Quinn revealed a rather prescient talent for taking some major global event, or state of geopolitical affairs, and boiling it down to its essence through some unlikely but brilliantly revealing metaphor. With the help of his longtime pal, and now director, Jerry Seinfeld, Quinn has extended that gift into an entire show (a Broadway hit last season and also seen on HBO) that attempts to tell the history of the world in about 80 minutes. Current events have provided Quinn with helpful bookends. He starts his monologue with ancient Greece, the Golden Age of philosophy, drama and human sophistication, and ends with broke Greece trying to catch a bailout ride from someone, anyone, and wondering how on earth it all went so terribly wrong. In just 2,500 years.
It is a cautionary tale, Quinn suggests, for America, the "food court of the fallen empires," which he suggests is starting to look a little bit too much like that famous mug shot of Nick Nolte's haggard face.
If you despair of dumb TV and stand-up comedy — defendings of cavemen and the like — and typically look across the Atlantic to the likes of Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais for your preferred humor, then the Brooklyn-born Quinn will surely satisfy. He doesn't free-associate and improvise like Izzard nor outrage or tear down like Gervais. He doesn't pause for laughs or even fully articulate what he's saying in his thick Brooklyn accent — which has the fascinating effect of creating rolling responses as different people figure out different elements of different things at different times. But his apparent lack of comfort works. And when you combine the erudition and incision of this material with Seinfeld's carefully structured and fast-paced staging, you get a very stimulating show that proves once again that when you refuse to pander or dumb things down, a whole lot of smart folks come out of the woodwork. (Why is it only solo artists and writers seem to ever get the power to follow through with that?)
Quinn has stuff on Marx and Engels: Given that Marxism is about equality and that the pair worked on the theory together, isn't there a bit of an issue with the name? And he wonders whether the complete inability of the world's economic leaders to predict the recent economic meltdown had anything to do with their propensity to hold their economic forums in Davos, Switzerland, a Platonic spot that metastasizes into the delegates' reality. "Hold it in Haiti once in a while," he suggests.
Along with an observation that the difference between a fascist dictatorship and a mature democracy means merely a choice of two potential leaders instead of one, that Davos line is Quinn at his best. Long after you've finished enjoying the joke, the essential truth of the deconstruction still noodles around in your brain. It feels like the jester has assailed the one thing that the lords and ladies missed and, ever since only Shakespeare's Fool could tell the whole truth to his King, that has been a pleasure to behold in the theater. Quinn surely isn't the first comic to use this kind of structure, but it's hard to think of another who has nailed such a succession of self-evident geopolitical absurdities with such consistency of logic and freshness of image.
To some extent, the sauntering through the detritus of superpower history is a good excuse to indulge in some ethnic humor at the expense of angry Arabs, snotty British, femme French, creepily dull Canadians, crime-loving Italians. But while the roots of that mockery are always familiar — Quinn does a delicious take on Caesar as proto-Mafiosa, suggests that the British empire was built purely on the power of contempt and uses the rapidity of service in Chinese restaurants as an indicator of the rapid rise of that soon-to-be-great nation — the jokes still land remarkably well, probably because they are not just rooted in sedentary stereotype, but rather in the truth that great human civilizations always collapse. Sooner or later.
In Quinn's hugely enjoyable geographic historiography, an ideal fit for the Broadway Playhouse, there's always a 3 a.m. bar fight somewhere. An overextended, hubristic superpower is always tottering around on its last legs, realizing all too late that the last six really big drinks were not necessarily the best idea, even as a third-world country ("like someone's little sister who grew up and got hot") might be ready first to catch their eye and then poke it out with a stick.
When: Through Sept. 10
Where: The Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut St.
Tickets: $40-$65 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com