All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Colin Quinn is for abortion, for guns, for gay marriage, and for the death penalty. Besides crossing entrenched party lines to put some common sense into politics, Quinn says his stances are not only sound but help to solve a more pressing issue, population control.
The positions Quinn espouses in “Unconstitutional,” his 70-minute solo show at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre, seem to place Quinn as a libertarian. In a conversation I had with Quinn after seeing his show, he said he wouldn’t categorize himself as such. If he had his way, he said, he would be a benign dictator and impose his will by applying logic to situations and rolling his eyes at all who make a profession out of being offended or who want to make rules that subject others to adhere to their leanings.
Quinn is refreshing because he is not the raging liberal one expects from someone who grew up and lives in New York and who spent years on network television. He doesn’t make “Republican” his only punch line. He looks askance at all extreme views and takes both progressive and conservative dogma to task in his show. Precisely because it’s dogma.
“Unconstitutional” is best at showing Quinn’s even-handed approach to looking at what divides America. The humor comes from Quinn’s observations about how people today handle issues the Founding Fathers and the original 13 states considered while drafting and ratifying the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Quinn’s tone is more intellectual and conversational than rollicking. He presents his cases in an unadulterated Brooklyn accent that makes him sound like an average guy spouting views over a beer and emphasizes the “So what?” and “Why all the fuss?” nature of most matters activists of any stamp deem pressing.
Quinn is like a renegade history professor who has discovered the practical jokes in the annals of the past. Laughs come from recognition of the boondoggle Quinn broaches or from agreement about his scholarly conclusions. I am one who believes the person who understood the American voter the best was Richard Nixon when he spoke of “the silent majority.” I don’t know what Quinn thinks about a “silent” or any majority, but his humor will appeal most to people who see, and worry about, the same absurdity and insanity in extreme points of view or, worse, points of policy, that Quinn makes into comic examples.
Quinn says he began studying the Constitution when he realized people revere it regardless of which side of the political spectrum they happen to fall. “Everyone loves this document,” he says. “Unconstitutional” is the result of his quest to understand why.
Although Quinn works from a finished script, and his commentary is accompanied by projections of the Constitution, he gives the impression he is speaking extemporaneously. His ideas flow in a stream of consciousness, and he uses a style in which he doesn’t always finish sentences, as if he is having an important revelation about a topic in the midst of talking matter-of-factly about it. “Unconstitutional” entertains, but it requires concentration and some indulgence as Quinn appears to be thinking up what he’s saying as he goes along. The show is as observational as it is funny, so it would be mistake to expect a non-stop comic routine. Better to appreciate Quinn’s take on matters and wait for the jokes and smart comments that come regularly enough to satisfy.
Although in conversation, Quinn says he fell in love with James Madison and the way he argued and persuaded — read bullied — his fellow delegates during the Constitutional Convention, he makes Madison the target of some of his jokes about the Founding Fathers, likening him to a chihuahua that grabs on to something and stubbornly won’t let go. Benjamin Franklin and George Washington are also mentioned in jest, Franklin’s age and womanizing and Washington’s height becoming sources of humor. Alexander Hamilton is barely mentioned at all.
Quinn doesn’t explain or criticize the Constitution as much as he uses it to illustrate how other choose to interpret it vs. what Madison and the Founding Fathers may have intended. Quinn gives credit to the leaders who forged through the various issues and debates to create the beloved document, citing the Enlightenment and how unusual it was to have so many people of merit working in one place on one project. He expresses gratitude that the Constitution grants him the right to do a show that may lampoon today’s political figures as he worries, in contrast, about people who are pilloried by language, especially those who make one statement the media broadcasts, possibly blowing it out of proportion, and find themselves a center of unwarranted controversy.
That doesn’t mean Quinn welcomes any misuse of language, only that we have to exercise perspective when we take people to task or jump on a bandwagon to make a slight transgression into a sin against mankind.
Quinn mentions his surprise at realizing the Constitution was about five pages long and expresses his wonder at all the study, interpretation, and uproar caused by such a terse document.
In his rambling style, Quinn talks about how the 1787 delegates repaired to ale houses and had a few dust-ups on the way to getting their jobs done. He also touches on recently expounded ideas like arming teachers with guns, ventures into the varying views on immigration including what he believes is the average American’s attitude toward “huddled masses,” wonders aloud why, if Bruce Springsteen is the hero of the American working class, he gives long concerts on weeknights, shows how commerce laws favor the Kardashians, makes fun of political correctness, and likens the slave trade of earlier centuries to the drug traffic of today.
Everything Quinn mentions has a comic or ironic tone to it, even when he asks why the Constitution’s drafters were not content with “perfect union” and opted for “more perfect union,” equating the hyperbole with a person who goes to several plastic surgeons to see which one can craft the more perfect nose.
As I said, laughs are not constant, and sometimes Quinn can get deeply involved in what he saying — I wondered if these instances included additions to the written script by way of ad libs, improvisations, or an impromptu urge to amplify a thought or issue. — but Quinn has to way of making you think about America’s founding document even as he shows how it leads to some of the stand-offs, and the expanded democracy via the Internet, we have today.
It’s all worth hearing, to provoke thought while getting in some chortles and yuks, because Quinn is clear-minded, and his attitudes and observations tap into the essence of humor.
“Unconstitutional,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, July 6 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 1 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. A 3 p.m. performance is scheduled for Friday, July 4 with tickets going for $17.76, but no 8 p.m. is set for that evening. Tickets are $54 t0 $49 and can be obtained by calling 215-985-0420 or going online to www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.