Getting Our Irish Up
by mark e. leib
If you love the literary arts, you're probably already Honorary Irish. Maybe you got that way via the plays of Oscar Wilde, Sean O'Casey, George Bernard Shaw or Samuel Beckett. Or maybe the change came when you first read the novels of James Joyce or the poems of William Butler Yeats. It's even possible that the transformation occurred while you were listening to Van Morrison sing "On Raglan Road," accompanied by the Chieftains.
However it happened, one day you got the message: Nothing Irish shall be foreign to you. Parnell and "the Troubles," the legendary Cuchulain and the Potato Famine, County Clare and the Aran Islands are henceforth as much your own heritage as that town in Belgium or Romania or Korea that your great-grandparents came from. It's a fascinating place, the world that literature makes; and in that cosmos, we word-lovers are all, to some degree, Irish citizens. And as we very well know, we're the better for it.
Now, there's nothing honorary about Frank and Malachy McCourt's Irishness. But I think that the reason their play A Couple of Blaguards is so very successful is that we audience members recognize the stories they tell as coming from the same store of experience that produced Joyce's Ulysses or Synge's Playboy of the Western World, that is, from the literary Ireland that's already made such an impact on readers and theatergoers everywhere. Of course, it also matters that the American Stage production is beautifully directed, superbly acted and well, albeit simply, designed.
But within the first few minutes of Act One, when Howard Platt as Frank McCourt and Michael T. Judd as his brother Malachy come out on stage and sing a toast to the city of Limerick, something else is going on, a kind of conspiracy between actors and spectators in celebrating an existence that we all seem to have shared. So you really didn't spend your childhood dirty and hungry on a Limerick lane, with so little money that "your arse hangs out through the hole in your trousers"? No matter -- for an hour and a half or so, you'll remember this and other details as if you'd lived them yourself, all the way from Ireland to New York, with an unexpected layover in Bavaria.
The ingratiating strategy of A Couple of Blaguards is to combine straight storytelling about the McCourts' lives in Ireland and America with seemingly off-the-cuff dramatizations punctuated by songs. So immediately after Frank and Malachy take the stage, a melody is offered and a ping-pong comedy rhythm is established that lasts the entire evening. Sometimes the two brothers alternate lines of a poem. Sometimes they divide straight prose narration between themselves, and sometimes they simply set up each other's jokes.
When Frank's childhood is the subject, Malachy takes on relevant roles -- a priest, a schoolmaster or a grandmother. And when Malachy's escape to America is center stage, Frank becomes a hospital supervisor, a theater director or a maritally-inclined young woman. True, the stories never go very deep; and there's a perhaps regrettable tendency at times to settle for an easy joke at the expense of a serious meditation. But finally you realize that this mode of fending off reality is part of these sufferers' defense mechanisms and not just showmen's reflexes. After all, much of A Couple of Blaguards is about poverty, failure and error. What better than humor and song to salve wounds and restore a little balance?
Judd and Platt are splendid as the McCourt brothers, and it takes them mere moments -- literally, a few seconds -- to establish their characters and dominate the stage. In fact, I can't easily remember any other actors who have so immediately won my confidence. Platt is also the show's director, and his winning approach is to have the performers engage the audience directly, as friends and confidants -- no hidden agendas, no innuendoes or subtext.
Scott Cooper's simple set -- a wooden table and a couple of chairs flanked by two large black-and-white photos, one of an Irish scene, one of Brooklyn -- further contributes to the ambiance of uncomplicated honesty. Ann Marie Elder's sound design quietly but effectively sets the scene with Irish music. Blaguards is not a particularly important play -- for all its virtues, it contains nothing terribly original or urgent -- but I could have happily watched for another two hours, just for the pleasure of so much professionalism. This is theater as good as you'll find Off-Broadway, and proof again that American Stage can be, at best, one of our most precious cultural resources.
So all right, I'm not Irish. The closest I've been to Dublin is the West Coast of England, and I've never actually set foot on the Lake Isle of Innisfree. Even so, I've been working on my honorary citizenship -- with the help of Messrs. Sheridan and Shaw, Synge and O'Neill, among quite a few others. And now I've been to Limerick with the McCourt boys.
Check 'em out. You'll feel like you've known 'em since your barefoot days by the River Shannon.
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