A Couple of Blaguards

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Editorial Review

A keg of laughs, a shot of tears
By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, October 4, 2012

A few minutes into Keegan Theatre’s revival of “A Couple of Blaguards” it will occur to you, if you didn’t already know, that Frank and Malachy McCourt were anything but blaguards. Their hypercritical mother called them that, and even she probably didn’t mean it. Perhaps she objected to the tales they chose to tell in this theater piece, first penned in the 1980s, of their hard childhood in Limerick, Ireland, and their difficult years as young men in New York.

In the play, the brothers are voluble, literary-minded Irishmen with a tragicomic tale to tell, songs to sing and occasional dances to dance. (They play all the people in their stories, too, male and female.)

Keegan’s revival, directed by Colin Smith, has many amiable moments, yet it feels hesitant and under-rehearsed. Some of the bigger emotions lose power because the timing is off or a line gets tripped over. The portly, suspenders-wearing Robert Leembruggen seems the most at home, as the outgoing Malachy. As Frank, actor Timothy Hayes Lynch gets the quiet, writerly demeanor but falters at times on the dialogue.

The actors perform on a set so drab that it adds little to the atmospherics. Just nine plain brown panels serve as a backdrop, with hooks for hats and scarves they use as props, and wall lamps so the shades can double as ladies’ hats. In the center is a little bar with stools, and off to the audience’s left, a table and chairs. They are utilitarian, and Lynch and Leembruggen struggle to achieve enough vividness to make you forget that.

They enter singing a tune about their ancestral home of Limerick. Born in New York, the brothers moved back to Ireland as tots with their parents and had an impoverished pre-World War II upbringing on a Limerick “lane,” surviving on bread and tea. They lived next door to the disease-ridden public toilet that served the whole street. Their father was an alcoholic who couldn’t hold a job and soon opted for an “Irish divorce” and left. Other siblings often died young. Their grandmother was so bizarrely pious, she made a priest guffaw. There were struggles with alcoholism, love and failed careers before acting called Malachy and teaching called Frank. Both also became writers. (Frank died in 2009.)

It sounds colorful -- material not only for their theater piece, but also for Frank’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1996 book, “Angela’s Ashes,” and the 1999 film based on it. Living it must have been quite a different matter, though.

Imagine a fire-and-brimstone priest telling a boy it’s a sin to enjoy a Tarzan movie. Or fearing damnation because a Communion wafer gets stuck to the roof of your mouth. Or seeing your little brother “dead as a mackerel” and laid out on a bed for the undertaker as your parents grieve. Or being told your stubbornly cowlicky hair is positively Protestant in its refusal to accept a grandmother’s spit and lie flat.

Whether the events they recount are sad, bizarre or comical, the brothers McCourt celebrate the gorgeous reinvention of the English language as spoken by their countrymen. Leembruggen has fun invoking a mayor of Limerick who advocated for more public urinals for the men “and arsenals for the women.”

The piece, even in the Keegan’s rough staging, still elicits a laugh and a tear at regular intervals, and is more than just a series of colorful anecdotes. It has power. Its narrative arc follows two talented men from their harrowing childhoods into successful adulthoods, achieved with difficulty and good humor.

At play’s end, Frank and Malachy perform a little coda, excerpting some of the stories they’ve just told. It’s a touching effect that echoes the way memory works -- just moments vividly recalled. And we must fill in the rest.

PREVIEW: Brother, can you spare a laugh?
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, September 21, 2012

Long before Frank McCourt was a Pulitzer Prize-winning author -- and after his destitute Irish upbringing, which was later immortalized in “Angela’s Ashes” -- he was a teacher at Stuyvesant High School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

It was there, in the early 1980s, that he began to come to grips with his past through storytelling. He and his brother Malachy (also a writer) created the humorous, music-filled “A Couple of Blaguards” and presented it to a group of students, parents and teachers in the school auditorium.

The little two-hander, meant to be a culture lesson for schoolchildren, has since traveled the country, with various actors standing in for the McCourt brothers, and now comes to Keegan Theatre. Company member Colin Smith, who is directing “Blaguards,” says the show remained in the back of his mind after he saw it a dozen years ago. And, given that Keegan specializes in Irish plays, this seemed like just the place to mount a production.

“I had loved the show a long time ago,” Smith says. “I just remember it being very entertaining -- I laughed the whole time -- but also I remember it had some poignancy to it.”

The play consists of a series of vignettes in which Frank and Malachy, embodied by actors Timothy Hayes Lynch and Robert Leembruggen, respectively, recount memorable moments from their youth. They occasionally transform into other characters, from their brassy grandmother and their terrifying priest to a birdbrained local politician. They also intermittently break into song. For those who have read “Angela’s Ashes” with tissues close at hand, this is a far more lighthearted affair. There is mention of untimely death, but for the most part, the brothers find levity in sadness.

“Something I love very much about Irish playwrights and Irish storytelling is that there is a real sort of comedy through the pain,” Smith says. “They’ve had such troubles, and yet they’ve maintained a sense of humor.”

Smith never had the chance to see the McCourt brothers perform “Blaguard,” but by pure chance, he recently met someone who was at the first informal performance. One night, Smith and the rest of the Keegan gang were taking a break from rehearsals outside Church Street Theater when D.C. resident Roger Gordon walked by, searching for a friend’s barbecue in Dupont Circle. Gordon noticed a flier for the show, which felt like a gateway to his past.

“And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw Mr. McCourt and his brother do this at Stuyvesant,’ ” Gordon says of the show he saw as a 15-year-old. “It was like an evening at the theater; it was kind of wild.”

Like Smith, Gordon has fond memories of the show’s breezy humor and the characters’ familial rapport.

“They told a lot of jokes, and they sang and they were very, very animated,” Gordon recalls. “It was like you were sitting in their kitchen, like your uncle who gets on a roll and just doesn’t stop.”

Of course at the time, Frank McCourt was just another teacher. It wasn’t until years later, in the mid-1990s, that Gordon and his friends realized the history they had witnessed.

“When we were in our late 20s and he told the story in the book,” Gordon says, “then it became apparent to us that it was a special thing we had seen.”