Hey, What’s New? “Colin Quinn: Small Talk”

There is some practical insight in “Colin Quinn: Small Talk,” the actor/comic/writer’s solo standup gig at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village. Who knew, for example, that the key word in a successful small talk exchange is ‘yes,’ and that people who nod yes earn $40,000 more than people who shake no.

Quinn’s background includes writing for and appearing on SNL (1995-2000) and anchoring that show’s Weekend Update. Since then, he has become an off-Broadway stalwart, showcasing self-written and performed commentaries that range from zeroing in on a particular topic (the U.S. Constitution) to limitless fantasy (the history of the entire world). “Small Talk,” his eighth such outing, falls somewhere between.

Colin Quinn [Photos: Monique Carboni]

In the tradition of Jerry Seinfeld, who directed two of his previous pieces (including “Long Story Short,” on Broadway in 2010), Quinn has the intuition to spin ordinary topics and situations into comic gold – to make something out of, if not nothing, very little. Built around the ubiquity of tossed-off interactions that he likens to the horn-blowing of passing ships merely acknowledging each other, “Small Talk” makes hay out of instantly understood shorthand, opening at my performance with “Tuesday night in New York, right?”

But the exchange of ice-breaking small talk, he says, is a dying art, with young people no longer schooled in the form. Between dependence on smart phones and earbuds, “small talk is down 87 percent.” (In my apartment building, at least half of the ride-sharers are on their phones, eliminating the minor pleasures of remarks about the weather or the new lobby furniture.)

Somewhat ironically, Quinn’s monologue is most interesting in the half where he digresses from the title topic. A riff on iPhones points out that while Bill Gates developed an educational and work tool (turn off the computer when you leave the office), Seve Jobs put one in everyone’s pocket, to figure out on their own. Why not give everyone a helicopter pilot license on the same basis? On the ubiquity of McDonald’s: two hundred years from now the Golden Arches will be perceived as having been symbols of our religion; in fact, he suggests, maybe the pyramids were the Egyptians’ fast food joints. (Not exactly a knee-slapper, but representative of the overall content.)

However bright and incisive he may be, Quinn does not help himself by his presentation.  Delivered in what we’ll call Rapid-Speak, “Small Talk,” noted in press releases and other sources as running 70 minutes, ran an hour flat on my Tuesday night. That he might have cut some material does not mitigate the fact that he talks – small or other – too damn fast. Combined with holding a cordless microphone right at his lips, a portion of his material is indistinct, a lament shared by my companion and another random attendee. Gaffes like that are why objective-eyed directors are so important to solo shows. Here, James Fauvell (and sound designer Margaret Montagna) fail both performer and audience in not alerting Quinn to simple adjustments. (I do not recall the same problem with his Seinfeld-directed pieces.)

Notwithstanding that flaw, the man gets a warm reception, even very casually dressed in jeans and untucked shirt, like, he points out, a twelve-year-old boy. Why not, Colin; that’s the audience dress code too.

Through February 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC. For Mon-Sat performance schedule and tickets ($49-$59): www.colinquinnshow.com