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Colin Quinn Unconstitutional

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Colin Quinn
Photo by Mike Lavoie.

Because I consider myself pretty well versed in the United States Constitution, I did not expect Colin Quinn's new solo show at the Barrow Street Theatre, Unconstitutional, to teach me much. It took Quinn approximately two minutes to prove me wrong.

In the first of the bits that comprise this barely 70-minute evening, Quinn zooms in not on guns, search and seizure, or even federalism, but in fact alcohol. Because everyone tends to scream statements along the lines of "I have rights!" when they've tossed back one too many, Quinn concludes, "The Constitution is the only document you get more knowledge of it, the drunker you get." He then goes on to point out that it "was written during a four-month drunken binge. The bills from those days show thousands of dollars in wine, port, beer." And, he continues, you can tell that today because the most American attitudes—confidence, cockiness, the willingness to provoke—are all the same aroused when one is soused.

As is his wont, Quinn spins this off into myriad bizarre and unruly directions, most of which manage to derive comedy from places you might not typically expect. (The Supreme Court, taxes, the Commerce Clause, and the national debt are not typically laugh riots, but become so here.) And when he dives into distinctly U.S. concepts like American Exceptionalism and the American Dream (the latter of which he insists is embodied—for better or worse—by the Kardashian family), he forces you to think about this country's taken-for-granted ideas and ideals in unique and original ways.

I, for one, was stunned to see a sustained and passionate discussion of James Madison, intrigued at Quinn's interpretation of racialism and proposed solutions for legitimate equality, and surprised at his frank dissection of the office of the president and the requirements that place it above the one-dimensional attributes so often associated with it today. He may be a comedian best known for his work on Saturday Night Live, but he's well versed in his subject and obviously well researched it, which leads to a broader-in-scope explication of difficult matters than you normally do with these kinds of outings.

That said, Quinn does have some trouble maintaining his momentum. Part of the problem might be a lopsided house—at the performance I attended he commented, apparently off-script, about the wide swath of New York viewpoints ranging from left to super-far left—that prevents a more nuanced exploration of certain hot-button issues. ("I'm pro–gay marriage, pro-gun, pro–death penalty, and pro-choice. What do they have in common? Anti-overcrowding.") And the end of the final scene, concerning the country's apparent downfall as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, is unfocused, uncentered, and pointedly unfunny compared to almost everything that comes before.

Nor does it help that director Rebecca A. Trent doesn't keep as tight a leash on Quinn here as she might. In fact, most of the staging seems a bit listless, with the performer's various appearances atop staircases, behind a podium, or seated at a desk lending less visual variety than thematic confusion. And because of Quinn's craggy voice and in-your-face manner, a little of him can go a long way unless he's severely reined in (as was the case with his most recent, and somewhat more cohesive, solo show on Broadway, Long Story Short, which Jerry Seinfeld directed).

But Quinn makes a compelling guide through some 226 years of turbulent history and seldom takes the easy way out. Though he displays an obvious appreciation for the system of laws on which the show is based, he holds few illusions about it. "World's police," he says in describing America. "We break up fights. Try to make everybody happy. And, ironically, we are no longer happy."

Why exactly that is—and what, if anything, can be done about it—is the closest Quinn gets to making a single point. But if you may leave a bit more sober-minded about the prospects for left and right, red and blue, and the U.S. and the world ever truly getting along again, you don't have to worry about Unconstitutional itself leaving you without at least a temporary grin on your face, and an extra thought or two in your head.

Colin Quinn Unconstitutional
Through June 3
Barrow Street Theater, 27 Barrow Street at 7th Avenue; 1 block south of Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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