Variety Wednesday, April 10, 2002

by Lawrence Christon

The weary mother of Frank and Malachy McCourt termed her boys "a couple of blaguards" when she signed off on them forever. It became the title of their act and became a strike-it-rich lode that later produced the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angela's Ashes" and a second bestseller in "'Tis" for Frank, and the bestseller "A Monk Swimming" followed by "Singing My Him Song" for Malachy. The touring show of "A Couple of Blaguards" with Howard Platt and Jarlath Conroy as the lads, is so funny and plays well in the mind’s eye that it isn’t until you’re half-way out the door that you realize how tough and unsentimental it is. The boys have seen so much that there can be no more tears: All that’s left to do really is laugh and keep moving.

As entertaining, mordant, wacky and moving as the two men’s books are, it’s the saloon voices of the McCourts that give them their vivid life. In watching these two tell raucous tales of their early life in Limerick, Ireland, and the absurdities of coming to America, it’s hard to distinguish which embellishes the other.

The main character of "A Couple of Blaguards" is the Anglo-Irish language itself, its ebullient rhythms, inventive audacity, and supple clarity. The hearty toasts go up for a zinger well aimed, a tale well told, a moral adorned and another fool dispatched by a withering oath.

Platt’s stout Malachy tilts back and gazes narrowly down at the world with a rosy suspicion that suggests he’s already a couple of shots ahead on the tab. Conroy is darker, leaner, more funereal; he looks like one of the doomed souls stumbling out of Harry Hope’s into dreaded daylight in Eugene O’Neill’s "The Iceman Cometh."

Both nimbly manage the colorful and shifting parade of Limerick characters, including a Joycean priest who warns of sinners’ eyeballs exploding in hell; the fatuous pol who looks out into the audience and says, "I see a few missing faces here tonight"; the McCourt grandmother who spits on Frank’s unruly Presbyterian hair to comb it straight; and two Limerick housewives who have at each other with viperish verbal zest. The American experience is only slightly less colorful, excepting the hare-lipped crook for whom Malachy smuggles gold to India.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the earlier, poverty-stricken lives of the McCourts, even if told with the bravado of two guys who’ve busted out of jail, were truly awful: The ground floor of their house lined with the ooze of neighborhood sewage; the suffering and death of their young brother; their alcoholic who abandoned them in spirit long before he left them in the flesh.