By James Bartholomew
Colin Quinn doesn’t claim to have all the solutions, but he knows exactly what the problems are. Sex, violence, politics, religion – the prolific comedian takes aim at just about everyone and everything in his new one‑man show, “Red State Blue State.” And while the breadth of content is occasionally overwhelming, the show is funny enough to be thoroughly entertaining.
As its name suggests, “Red State Blue State” (directed by Bobby Moresco) sees the SNL alumnus dissect the great divide permeating American politics and the geographic tribalism that rift has created. Finding fault on both sides of the political spectrum, Mr. Quinn sees no other possible end to this toxic discourse than a full‑blown civil war.
Although that consequence is alarming, what’s most worrying, according to Mr. Quinn, is that it’s inevitable. The looming battle between the “racist, fascist” red states and the “elitist, communist” blue states has been practically foretold ever since the United States was founded. And now, with the country on the brink of collapse, all that’s left to do is eulogize the principles of democracy, free speech and equality, whose corruption got us into this mess in the first place.
It’s not exactly a feel‑good family affair, but Mr. Quinn lathers the weighty subject matter with his signature caustic wit, resulting in a show that, while pessimistic, is infectiously funny. Even when his criticism is at its most conceptual, Mr. Quinn has a talent for breaking his arguments down into relatable and amusing metaphors.
At one point, he compares various social media platforms to patrons at a bar. Later, he asks if we’d be as tolerant of the past forty years of congressional gridlock if it had been a literal traffic jam instead. What sells both jokes is Mr. Quinn’s surgically precise delivery and natural charisma that mines laughs from even the most cerebral material. Most praiseworthy is that despite his constant callouts of Republicans and Democrats alike, Mr. Quinn keeps his audience laughing, even when they’re laughing at themselves.
It’s unfortunate then that for all its charm, the political commentary of “Red State Blue State” is somewhat lacking in depth. Part of the problem is the play’s ambitious scope. In about seventy‑five minutes, Mr. Quinn opines on how political correctness stifles free speech, the injustice and hypocrisy of egalitarian structures, the evolution of law as an extension of the social contract, social media and its amplification of sexual deviancy, the relationship between immigration and xenophobia, and the imminent robot apocalypse instigated by Jeff Bezos. Any one of those hot takes is complex enough to warrant its own head‑turning one‑man show. However, when strung together into a streamlined comedy set, a few things are bound to slip through the cracks.
Inevitably, certain subjects get more time than others, but that time isn’t always well spent. At first, Mr. Quinn admirably critiques the trappings of American exceptionalism, but near the end, he takes one‑liner potshots at all fifty states. It’s a move consistent with his overall theme, but its brisk pace makes the segment seem shallow.
What’s worse, Mr. Quinn’s more contentious musings aren’t given enough time to develop, and come off a bit muddy. Mr. Quinn has a lot to say about political correctness, but he never actually defines that term in a useful way. In fact, most of “Red State Blue State” relies on its audience to fill in the gaps when it comes to interpreting the ideologies it chastises. As a result, it’s difficult to tell where these gripes stem from. Part of that is due to the overabundance of material, but Mr. Quinn’s blame‑both‑sides cynicism gets in the way of truly meaningful or fresh insight. Mr. Quinn isn’t wrong when he suggests that coastal elites neglect the plight of the rural working class, but he isn’t breaking new ground, either. Conversely, it doesn’t matter how good your Donald Trump impersonation is – it’s going to feel a little old‑hat.
With its overreliance on political shorthand and a barrage of quips, “Red State Blue State,” for all its alarmist posturing, feels very comedically safe. Thankfully, Mr. Quinn makes the best of material that is occasionally insubstantial. The result is familiar musings, albeit wonderfully articulated. Although “Red State Blue State” doesn’t always keep up with its own highbrow premise, its performer’s keen eye and charming wit are enough to make for a fun, if slightly superfluous show.
“Red State Blue State”
Written and Performed by Colin Quinn
Directed by Bobby Moresco
Photo: Edward T. Morris
January 22 – March 16, 2019
Minetta Lane Theatre
18 Minetta Lane
New York, NY
July 27th, 2019, at 8:00PM
Bay Street Theatre
Sag Harbor, NY
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.