By Stuart Miller . . . 

Small talk is, by its very nature, banal and forgettable. Comedian Colin Quinn seeks to imbue pleasantries and chit-chat with a deeper meaning in his new solo show, Small Talk, musing and riffing about this technique by which “we unite by common experience in under a paragraph.”

Quinn notes that “Between phones, air pods and self-checkout, small talk is down 87 percent” and society is worse off for it. He argues that kids need to be taught the skill as early as pre-school, learning phrases and banter, like “Is it me or is this bus driver a little off?” 

But people are too concerned about being fake and not being their authentic self, he says dismissively. “Your authentic self is not your best self. Ask your spouse when you go home tonight, ‘Would you rather I start relating to you the way I do with people at work—superficial, over the top, laughing at stuff that’s not funny, dressed up all the time? Or the way I am with you, my authentic self—mildly depressed, emotionally unavailable, passive aggressive, usually in sweatpants?’”

Colin Quinn

Quinn has built a career out of making outer borough gruffness amiable and of sometimes shrugging off a thought mid-sentence as if you know where he’s going and he can’t be bothered or doesn’t have the time to finish. It’s effective in small doses—if you saw virtually any 30 minutes of this show as stand-up in the Comedy Cellar you’d walk out thrilled—but as my friend said after Small Talk, “That was a lot of Colin Quinn.” 

That feeling is more acute because while Small Talk is almost always smart and frequently insightful, it doesn’t fully cohere thematically. So, while he starts off teaching us about how to do small talk (lots of agreeing and flattery, which he performs to great effect) much of the show is about the dangers of small talk gone awry. That feels out of sync with the earlier bits, but a few minutes setting this up as part of his big idea early on would go a long way to solving that problem. Still, some parts, like a segment about America policing the world and about fresh political ideas, still feel utterly irrelevant and others, like a tribute to the late Norm MacDonald—about the comedian twisting Quinn’s words about legalizing prostitution—are only tangentially connected. 

On the bright side, except for a few lulls in the middle, Quinn consistently ranges from amusing and laugh-out-loud funny. Some of his most off-topic one-liners are memorable—“The only people that should weigh in on abortion in my opinion are mothers who are disappointed in how their adult children turned out. They’ve seen the agony and the ecstasy”—and some set pieces that don’t really fit the narrative, are among the night’s funniest. 

Colin Quinn

At one point Quinn predicts that in the future cop shows will be replaced with dramas about Human Resources. “There are two separate but very important groups in every office—the sexist pigs and those who are assigned to stop them. These are their stories.” . . .” “Possible 311, mansplaining in progress. Get over there.” . . . “Bring him to the gender-neutral bathroom. I want to talk to this son of a bitch.” . . . “Did you call your supervisor shrill, is that what you said?”

Quinn also does a scene from Romeo and Juliet that imagines Shakespeare’s play if people lacked manners and spoke the way people do on social media: “You want the smoke? Come, I am your match” . . . “Away snowflake. I will watch thee melt.”

He complains about social media turning people into opinion addicts, saying that if the internet ever shut down they’d be “like any other addict in front of the 7-11 trying to give their opinion. They’re grabbing you, ‘Hey hey hey, let me tell you what I thought of the season finale of White Lotus, this is important.’ . . . ‘My top ten Foo Fighter songs, then, please!’”

Quinn’s show ultimately can’t compare to Mike Birbiglia’s recent show The Old Man and The Pool—which was not only more consistently funny, but also more inherently theatrical in its storytelling. But an evening of his Small Talk is definitely going to make you laugh and think more than an evening of ordinary small talk.

Small Talk. Through February 11 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher Street). 70 minutes, no intermission. 

Photos: Monique Carboni