Chicago Sun Times

Blaguards' duo has gift of blarney

November 29, 2006


First brewed nearly two decades ago, "A Couple of Blaguards" -- that beguiling little Irish vaudeville in the form of a fraternal autobiography devised by Frank and Malachy McCourt -- has lost none of its intoxicating charm. The brothers themselves no longer perform the show; Frank has moved on to Pulitzer Prize literary heights for his best-selling memoir Angela's Ashes, and Malachy remains a gadabout of multiple talents.

Flyer for Blaguards ShowBut the thing has developed a life of its own. And a fair number of actors seem more than happy to turn themselves into the McCourts for an evening, and engage in the perfectly calibrated blarney the two have spun from their spiritually rich (if otherwise impoverished) Limerick childhoods, and from the discombobulating experiences of their young adult years as "mick" immigrants in New York.

The "Blaguards" show, which has returned to the Royal George Theatre for a limited holiday season engagement, is a perfectly delightful way to spend a few hours. With the drolly mischievous Frank splendidly embodied by New York actor Jarlath Conroy (a small, lean, fleet man with a face that has far more craggy shadows than planes of light), and the more blustery clown that is Malachy played by Howard Platt (a veteran actor who was once a commercial theater producer here, and who doubles as this production's director), the "brothers" are being expertly represented. They two play wonderfully off each other, and all that could be improved is the hint of a just a bit more darkness of the soul at a few crucial moments.

The McCourts, reared primarily by their mother and fearsome granny, grew up dirt poor. (Their father got what they call "an Irish divorce," meaning, as they tell us, "he just disappeared.") They lived in "the lane," the putrid area where all those families lacking indoor plumbing simply dumped their buckets of waste. They also grew up in full thrall of the Roman Catholic Church, with elaborate visions of hellfire perpetually dancing in their heads, an intimate knowledge of the seven deadly sins keeping the guilt factor in continual play, sessions in the confessional verging on the farcical and first communions that ended with the "body of Christ" getting stuck to the roof of one's mouth.

But if the material poverty was extreme, there was gold to be mined in the poor man's arts of storytelling and verbal high jinks and an appreciation of the larger-than-life characters who lived in the hood. To a large extent, this would become the key to their survival and triumph.

Howard Platt and Jarlath Conroy in A Couple of BlaguardsWith images of a stone church and rutted lane projected on one side of the stage, Limerick is the site of the show's first chapter, but for the second half, the action moves across the Atlantic to New York, captured in emblematic images of the New York Stock Exchange and the Brooklyn Bridge. And AMERICA -- with only uppercase letters fully suggesting how large this "alternative Ireland" loomed as a destination for generations of the poor -- turned out to offer its own set of challenges.

Frank, who arrived first, ultimately became a public schools instructor (see his more recent book Teacher Man for the tragicomic details), while Malachy founded what many consider to be the first singles' bar in the United States. In "Blaguards," the brothers' dad will resurface briefly, sailing for America, continuing his drinking and heading home to die. Their mother, Angela, will spend her final years in this country, too. But her ashes will be brought back to Limerick. For as James Joyce observed in Finnegans Wake: "... the riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."


When: Through Dec. 24
Where: Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted

Chicago Reader

Chicago Reader A COUPLE OF BLAGUARDS Irish siblings and scribes Frank and Malachy McCourt collaborated on this program of song and storytelling about their hardscrabble Limerick childhood. In the roles of Malachy and Frank, Howard Platt (who also directs) and Jarlath Conroy offer a ribald evening of dour delight, wizard timing, and expert blarney. That instant recipe for misery, a Catholic childhood, is here humorously condensed to 'If you've anything to say, shut up!' The merriment is anchored by the McCourts' deliciously dry humor, and Irish songs so tart or sweet you're won over by the second measure.(LB)