April 8, 2002
Growing Up With the McCourts. Humor spurs 'A Couple of Blagards,' a two-man play recounting the brothers' gritty childhood.
By LYNNE HEFFLEY, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Frank McCourt turned his bitter Irish childhood into the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes"; his brother, actor Malachy McCourt, wrote the bestseller "A Monk Swimming," about his struggling early adult years. These master raconteurs then laced their combined experiences into a vaudeville of comedy, Irish songs and a gallery of relatives, rogues, fools and petty tyrants--priestly and otherwise.
The result is "A Couple of Blaguards," a touring two-man play that had its Southern California premiere this weekend at Brea's Curtis Theatre, its only local stop.
On a stage empty but for a wooden table and two chairs, Malachy (Howard Platt, who directs), and Frank McCourt (Jarlath Conroy) each salute the audience with a hefty pint of dark, heady ale and a curling Irish brogue, then launch into an hour and 40 minutes of marvelous blarney and blather, winking sentimentality, lusty humor and life stories that progress from Ireland to New York. Much lighter than "Angela's Ashes" and Frank McCourt's second memoir, "'Tis," the brothers' tale of growing up in grinding poverty and their years spent trying to cope with the scars of it all unfolds through a series of narratives and characters, some more sharply defined than others.
We meet the mother--pious, defeated and irritating.
Watching the moon landing at a saloon, she cuts off Neil Armstrong's historic first words with a loud and plaintive demand for a sandwich.
There is the absentee alcoholic father, who at age 70 is found drunk in bed with two elderly neighbor women--"on the pillow were three bald heads and seven miles of gums."
Although mincing movement and a simper are all that distinguish some of the female characters played by Platt, he and Conroy score laughs as kerchiefed Limerick gossips, and as the McCourt children playing at being women at a wake, extolling the dubious virtues of the deceased.
Platt--big, broad-faced and red-haired, with the pouchy-eyed look of a man who may indeed enjoy hoisting a few--amps up his energy in the dynamic and hilarious second act recounting Frank and Malachy's adventures in New York.
As Frank, the dark and intense Conroy--a Broadway and Irish theater veteran with mournful eyes and eyebrows quizzically aslant--is a forceful presence throughout. Whether portraying young Frank's horror that he can't swallow the dry wafer at his first Communion ("I had God glued to the roof of my mouth"), or the adult Frank's reaction when a comely librarian introduces him to the greats of Irish literature, Conroy conveys the tears beneath the laughter.
And, though this show is propelled by irreverent humor and burlesque, that's what lingers afterward: the underlying reality of two men who were shaped by life in a gritty little lane in Limerick.