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Review: In Small Talk, Colin Quinn Finds Humor in the Lost Art of Low-Stakes Banter

The stand-up comedian and SNL alum returns to off-Broadway's Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Colin Quinn wrote and stars in Colin Quinn: Small Talk, directed by James Fauvell, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Monique Carboni)

Is idle chitchat the glue holding our fragile republic together? Colin Quinn seems to think so. His latest stand-up routine at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, Small Talk, is an ode to the lost art of inconsequential conversation and a general kvetch about America in the "age of mass hysteria."

Anyone who has caught Quinn's previous off-Broadway shows (Unconstitutional, The New York Story, Red State Blue State, and, most recently, Last Best Hope) will know the drill: For 80 minutes, Quinn expounds on the state of the world through observation, argument, and an idiosyncratic interpretation of history. One minute he's talking about the heart attack he suffered several years back, the next he's imagining what future archeologists will make of the golden arches scattered across our great land — must've been their churches. Crooning the late empire blues that so many Americans now know by heart, he opines, "That's how we should end our empire. 'Ah, China you want it, God bless you, good luck.'"

His overarching thesis is that, in our politicization of everything and our zeal to promote our personal brands online, we've collectively lost the ability to talk about the small stuff: the weather, kids, work (but not actually how we feel about it). This shift from small talk to big important ideas concerning politics and social justice has made it more difficult for strangers to see eye-to-eye, and it hasn't actually delivered the authenticity it seems to promise. "Your social media profile is who you think you are, and your browser history is who you are," Quinn asserts.

Delivered in his distinctive Brooklynese, it feels like listening to a barstool philosopher — that guy who can strike up a conversation with anyone (thanks to his mastery of small talk) but ends up delivering a freewheeling monologue about everything he knows and believes. The small talk cannot help but lead to big stuff.

Colin Quinn wrote and stars in Colin Quinn: Small Talk, directed by James Fauvell, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
(© Monique Carboni)

Obviously, this is not a style of comedy that everyone will appreciate. I was never doubled over with laughter, but I found Quinn's observation to be witty and insightful on balance. I particularly enjoyed his prognostication about the creeping sovereignty our employers exert over all aspects of our lives: "You'll see five years from now there will be no more Law and Order, no more CSI; every cop show is going to be HR."

As is the case with most stand-up shows, the set (by Zoë Hurwitz) bears only a tenuous relationship to the material. Quinn never references it, and the installation of interconnected chalkboards with arrows drawn across them makes Quinn look somewhat like a basement-dwelling conspiracy theorist — or, more charitably, a substitute teacher gone rogue.

Under the direction of James Fauvell, Small Talk isn't as focused as Quinn's previous shows, and he seems to stumble over some of the material (a prompter loaded with the script hangs from the balcony). Still, he's been doing this long enough to know how to finesse the moment, bringing us back to safety as any expert small-talker must. Seeing a Colin Quinn show is like visiting a guilty-pleasure fast-food joint: You know what you're going to get, and there's comfort in that.

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