Category: Archive

Familiar tales

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

First, you hear the voice in the darkness, delivering brief, uncompleted phrases of “America the Beautiful.” Then, as the lights come up, the body carrying the voice hoves into view, enormous and encased in a white suit, highlighted by a white tie, all of which makes him resemble a singing polar bear.
It is, of course, Malachy McCourt, part-time actor, full-time raconteur, former publican and periodic author, performing the 80-minute show he’s written, based on the highs he’s experienced in seven or so decades of being alive and Irish.
The show, on display on the Irish Repertory Theatre’s cozy subterranean stage through Feb. 5, is called “You Don’t Have To Be Irish,” and it contains a few of the speed bumps and low spots the affable storyteller and occasional radio host, and the people around him, have experienced along the road.
A lot of the lighter material, while potentially delightful to audiences unfamiliar to McCourt, may prove, to put it mildly, somewhat threadbare for individuals who have been exposed to him on a regular basis over the years.
There are the stories about a Limerick politician who had a spectacular gift for mangling the English language, and the tales, tinged with bitterness, about having been born in Brooklyn and then, at a tender age, transported to spectacular poverty in the dingy, teeming lanes of Limerick, where the dysfunctional family suffered the loss of no fewer than three of their numerous children.
If some of the material comes across as uncomfortably rethreaded, it is, of course, because Malachy McCourt is the brother of Frank McCourt, teacher-turned-writer, and the author of, among other volumes, the vastly successful “Angela’s Ashes.”
The McCourt brothers, the pair being the most visible of the surviving four, the others being Alfie and Michael, shared the same trouble-plagued childhood, and therefore, their anecdotes and memories tend to come over much in the manner of photographic double exposures.
McCourt’s title is a kind of take-off on the old Levy’s Rye Bread ads, with their punch line, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.”
In a way, there’s an irony, probably unintended, in that title. McCourt does, in fact, have to be Irish, because without it, he’d be just another aging boyo.
If McCourt has based a rather long career on a somewhat heightened sense of his own Irishness, it’s forgivable because, most of the time, he does it so well.
The richest passages in his show are arguably the darkest, among them, the moments in which he refers to his state as a “recovering alcoholic,” although he speaks of it only glancingly.
He deals, movingly, with the early deaths of that trio of siblings, first the infant, Margaret Mary, then, one after the other, the twin boys, Eugene and Oliver.
McCourt and his first wife, Linda, had two children. With his second wife, Diana, there were three, the first of them a severely retarded girl, Nina, who went from hospital to hospital and facility to facility until she ended up, “warehoused,” at the notorious Willowbrook Hospital on Long Island.
Television newsman Geraldo Rivera, who formerly worked as Jerry Rivers, made his name by investigating and exposing the evils and abuses of Willowbrook, and, according to the text of “You Don’t Have To Be Irish, it was McCourt who, based on his own experience, first broached the subject to the journalist.
Another of the prime moments in McCourt’s show involves the burial place of his long-dead baby sister, Margaret Mary. One of the two sons of the writer’s second marriage, Conor, is a police officer and it was with his assistance of the elder McCourt searched for, and finally found, the modest plot of ground in which the dead child had been buried.
As it happened, the family still had a portion of the cremated remains of the McCourt brothers’ dead mother, quite literally, Angela’s ashes.
Using them, the brothers conducted an informal ceremony at Margaret Mary’s graveside, thereby putting to rest, at long last, a sad, significant chapter of the McCourt family history.
Early in “You Don’t Have To Be Irish,” McCourt tells the story of his birth in Brooklyn, and the family’s eventual move to Ireland, where both of his parents had been born. Neither family wanted to have very much to do with the McCourts on their return, and, as their fortunes worsened, the writers’ father declined into more or less bottomless alcoholism, while his wife became the victim of an endless depression.
This is, to be sure, material Frank McCourt dealt with eloquently in “Angela’s Ashes,” but his brother puts his own distinctive spin on the details and, needless to say, on his own feelings about them.
The writer even has a wry, witty and clearly tongue-in-cheek comment on being Frank McCourt’s brother. He will write a book someday, he tells his hearers, called “I Read Your Brother’s Book.”
Though audiences may disagree, the more serious passages in “You Don’t Have To Be Irish” are arguably those portions in which he takes risks and reveals, or at least alludes to, aspects of his life and his character which don’t necessarily throw the most positive light on the character he has worked so long and so hard to create, namely himself.
There is a free-form quality to McCourt’s show, and it very probably varies in length and content from performance to performance. On opening night, he checked his watch at one point, probably determining precisely how long he could safely continue.
As it happened, the audience would have been totally pleased if he’d carried on for at least a few more minutes. His vocalizing is slightly wobbly, and when he sings the Australian favorite, “Waltzing Matilda,” including a few unfamiliar verses, it’s fairly obvious that his acquaintanceship with the melody is on the casual side.
His audiences, however, seem willing to follow him anywhere, and when he closes his show with a rendition of “Wild Mountain Thyme,” they accompany him, with a little urging on his part, in an energetic singalong.
There is about the jovial, tender-hearted performer at the very least a dollop or two of the “professional Irishman,” which is probably unavoidable, and, in some quarters, it must be admitted, decidedly welcome and warmly received.
It’s up to you to decide whether or not you believe every detail of every yarn Malachy McCourt spins, but in the end it doesn’t matter very much whether he’s playing it straight or embellishing the truth just a bit here and there.
“You Don’t Have To Be Irish” may not be the Irish Rep’s most brightly shining hour, but it’s as humane as it is humorous, and it’s abundantly worth the little effort it requires.

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