Anyone who thinks that ethnic stereotypes are entirely untrue should avoid comparing Colin Quinn's "An Irish Wake" with John Leguizamo's "Freak."
Like "Freak," "An Irish Wake" is a one-man Broadway show built around memories of an ethnic neighborhood in New York. But there the similarities end.
Leguizamo's show had all the heady male display that tends to be associated with the word "Latino." Quinn's has all the melancholy wit, all the unstable mix of defiance and resignation, that seems to be contained in the word "Irish."
Where Leguizamo strutted, Quinn shambles.
Instead of electric energy, there is dry understatement.
Instead of characters who grab you by the throat, there are impersonations that creep up on you from nowhere.
And yet, in its own way, "An Irish Wake" is as rich and as riveting as "Freak."
Quinn is sometimes so funny that you shout out loud with laughter. But what makes his show a piece of theater rather than just a standup act is that the laughter comes out of grief and loss. The show is essentially about death. The various stories and characters are drawn together by the death, sometime in the 1970s, of Jackie Ryan, a man who seemed a permanent fixture in this Irish corner of Brooklyn.
There are other deaths, as well.
One character's hilarious tale of life in the suburbs reminds us that the Irish are slowly moving out and that this whole world is dying.
Another brilliantly evokes the death of President John F. Kennnedy as the moment when respectable, old-fashioned Irish ambition collapsed and everything became permissible.
A third character, a young junkie on the brink of prison, embodies the consequences of that collapse.
Quinn's vision of these people is at once merciless and tender. Their foibles and obsessions, their delusions and pomposities, are laid bare. But so is their simple humanity.
For all its expletives and scatology, "An Irish Wake" is essentially a respectful elegy for those who, as one of Quinn's characters puts it, "didn't go after what we wanted. We went after what was left."
The one problem with the show is that it is not long enough. What's missing is a more powerful sense of the dead man, Jackie Ryan, and why he mattered so much.
But this is, in a way, an appropriate complaint.
"An Irish Wake" is, after all, a fiercely funny reminder of the bitter truth that things have a habit of vanishing long before they ought to.
With the cruel relish of a bleak Irish wit, Colin Quinn recalls for us the peculiar narrow-minded characters of his Brooklyn youth: J. T., the scornful druggie; Aidan, the venomous alcoholic; Margaret, the perpetual martyr; Jimmy, the judgmental do-nothing. Yet for all the dark and finely drawn characters he introduces in the course of his one-man show, the most surprising character on the stage of the Helen Hayes Theater is Mr. Quinn himself.
Given his prominent television comedy job, as the new anchor of ''Weekend Update'' on ''Saturday Night Live,'' you might have assumed that ''Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake,'' which opened last night, would be a satirical spinoff of his late-night showcase. But if you were expecting a standup comic, a Seinfeldesque brush with Broadway, fuhgeddaboutit. What you get in Mr. Quinn instead is an honest-to-goodness seanachai.
A who? A seanachai, which is pronounced SHAWN-uh-kee: an Irish storyteller, a weaver of legends. At the foot of a set of steps, designed by Eugene Lee to resemble the stoops of Park Slope, Mr. Quinn spends a little more than an hour recreating the twisted universe of his late adolescence and invoking the small-town voices that echo on the insular blocks of the big city. He seems relieved to have blasted out of that universe, because the voices are harsh; there is not a scintilla of sentimentality in Mr. Quinn's admirably brutal, mostly unlovable portraits. But they certainly sound authentic, to the point where sections of ''An Irish Wake'' feel like documentary outtakes.
The strength of ''An Irish Wake,'' which Mr. Quinn wrote with Lou DiMaggio, and which is directed by Bobby Moresco, is in its specificity and literacy. The vehemence of Aidan's attack on a boy who fails to bring him a proper Scotch and soda (''The little pimple-faced Judas has sold me out for 30 pieces of silver,'' Mr. Quinn declares in an Irish accent), the self-abnegating response of Margaret when a mourner stomps on her foot -- ''No, it's O.K., honey, I'll offer it up'' -- indicate a highly developed ear for the ironically funny detail, a pleasing awareness of the magnetic appeal of precision in language. He's a tale-spinner who chooses his words with the utmost care.
Still, there's the persistent sense of an assignment unfinished about ''Colin Quinn: An Irish Wake,'' and it has more to do with Mr. Quinn the performer than the writer. Unlike other soloists who speak in multiple voices, like John Leguizamo and Anna Deavere Smith, Mr. Quinn is no chameleon. As is apparent in the roles he gets on ''Saturday Night Live,'' he usually plays Colin Quinn. That's not a knock. He's extremely funny; his smart-alecky ''Weekend Update'' spots have reinvigorated that hoary feature. Although he makes no claim on the stage of the Helen Hayes to be an impressionist -- roundish and impish, he charts a neutral performance course in conjuring his neighborhood cronies, relying on subtler cues in the text to make the people come alive -- a bit of the mimic's craft here would not be amiss.
The trouble is, his characters are all specific in the same ways; it's difficult, at times, to figure out where one person begins and another ends. And the 39-year-old Mr. Quinn, who is a genial but not especially warm presence, makes the dangerous assumption that you arrive at the theater well-versed in the kinds of people and situations he knows so well; his shorthand discussions of the seven sacraments, around which he structures the stories, will mystify many a non-Roman Catholic. He provides so little context in this piece, in fact, it's as if you had been invited to a friend's office party, where everyone is telling jokes about people you've never heard of. You want to laugh with them, but mostly what you feel is left out.
The monologue is set on a day in 1976 when a beloved veteran of the neighborhood, Jackie Ryan, has died, and the community gathers for his wake. One by one, Mr. Quinn sizes up the working-class Irish characters who made up his world. The respect he pays them is that the portraits are unvarnished. These are people who fall easily into black moods, who complain and curse with equal fluency, who view love as a bitter pill and a life's progress as falling naturally into the regulatory path of the Catholic Church.
''Here you had a group of people who had spent their whole lives doing what they were told, kept their mouths shut, beaten by the nuns and told that sex was bad,'' one of the characters explains. ''Then 20 years later, when our marriages were filled with silence, violence and bad sex, we blamed each other.''
Mr. Quinn's people are ferociously devoted to their narrow ways; they are fatalistic and terribly hard on one another. And they're brawlers who lash out madly at ideas that frighten them. At Jackie's wake, his pal Jimmy notes, ''There was the sober Jackie, who played stickball with the neighborhood kids, and there was the Jackie three beers later who chased an Econoline van with a broken-off car antenna, because he thought he saw a peace sign on the window.''
The storyteller is not a benign presence. The stories he selects do not portray these people in the most favorable light. They are a carelessly nasty crew. Aidan hisses ''Whore!'' at the boy who serves him the wrong drink; J. T. has sex on the grave of his grandmother. What binds these souls is a duty to religion, a sneering mistrust of the rest of the world and a sense that the way things are is just the way things are. These are small stories about small people, and they get a bit swallowed up on a Broadway stage. Perhaps in more intimate surroundings, the clear-eyed Mr. Quinn's tormented characters would cast bigger shadows.
If you grew up Irish Catholic in Brooklyn, Colin Quinn's solo show may send you into a secular state of grace, but this low-key visit to a neighborhood clan gathering to memorialize a local hero may leave others feeling uninvited to the party. Quinn, now known as the new "Weekend Update" anchorman on "Saturday Night Live," is an affable performer, but this show hovers indistinctly between the realms of standup and character-based comedy, without particularly excelling in either genre.
The year is 1976, and the occasion is the wake being held for Jackie Ryan, a man of many facets -- sober and drunk, mostly -- who is eulogized both formally and informally by a host of local denizens.
Unlike John Leguizamo, to take an example from recent Broadway history, Quinn doesn't attempt to evoke his characters through complex vocal or physical effects; he doesn't disappear into them. As a result, they tend to run together -- they almost all speak a variation on Quinn's own gruff Brooklynese, for example, and it's often hard to tell where the narrator (Quinn himself, more or less) ends and one of his characters begins.
Among the more memorable personalities we meet in this hour-long show, originally developed in 1994 at the Irish Arts Theater, is the chronically stoned J.T., who casually relates the circuitous route by which he ended up committing a popular sin both in the presence of a holy father and literally on top of his grandmother's grave ("That's pretty shocking if you don't know the previous circumstances," he admits).
The wake also occasions the return to the neighborhood of folks from "as far away as Long Island," one of whom, Ray, is an amusing picture of the crass climber who thinks he's escaped his roots when it's clear to all that they're still stuck to his shoe. Of his new suburban berth in Long Island he says, "It's peaceful there. I haven't got in one fight," and then proceeds to detail a drawn-out, petty squabble with his next-door neighbor.
The writing by Quinn and Lou DiMaggio is consistently funny, but it's a little flaccid, despite a somewhat forced use of the seven sacraments as a unifying structure. The stories could be more punchily paced by director Bobby Moresco, and the constant pretense of having the characters react to unseen interlocutors grows wearisome. It's a device that needs to be used more sparingly.
"An Irish Wake" is also laced with a misty-eyed nostalgia, as more than one character decries the sad decline of the neighborhood culture or relates with comic bluntness the disappointments of life. The lone female character in the show, a maniacally selfless aunt who "would do anything for you as long as you did nothing for her," is captured nicely in her own words: "We didn't go after what we wanted. That was too selfish. We went after what was left."
But amusingly typed as most of them are, the characters don't really come to vivid life. They all seem to be filtered through Quinn's own personality, and are more vehicles for amusing anecdotes than fully imagined creations. Such qualms aren't likely to bother those who share Quinn and DiMaggio's touchstones -- the rites and rituals of a Catholic childhood, the legacy of Irish culture -- but aliens to this insular world may find a $50 price for an hour's worth of these mild comic tales a little stiff.