Category: Archive

Theater Review The McCourts, minus the McCourts

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Joseph Hurley

A COUPLE OF BLAGUARDS, by Frank and Malachy McCourt. Starring Shay Duffin and Mickey Kelly. At the Triad Theatre, 158 West 72nd St., NYC. Open-ended run.

"A Couple of Blaguards," the stage memoir cobbled together by the McCourt brothers, Frank and Malachy, and initially performed by them beginning a decade ago, is a little bit like "A Chorus Line."

When the Broadway musical smash lost its original cast, on whom the show had been structured, and whose personal stories were built into the text, questions arose as to whether the production would still be effective.

As it happened, "A Chorus Line" still functioned, and continued to do so for a number of years after its first performers went off to follow individual careers.

Despite an advertising campaign seemingly designed to convey the impression that Frank and Malachy McCourt are to be found on the stage of the Triad Theatre on West 72nd Street, the brothers are present only in the ads running in the dailies. Their absence, it must be said, has had the effect of making "A Couple of Blaguards" an oddly diminished, blurred event.

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Going through the lives of the McCourts, in Limerick in the first act, and, after the intermission, in New York, are actors Shay Duffin as Malachy, and Mickey Kelly as Frank. Both are rather oddly cast, although a switch in roles wouldn’t immediately seem to accomplish much in the way of bringing the performers closer in focus to the originals.

Your reaction to "A Couple of Blaguards" is very likely to depend on your feelings about the near-ubiquitous presence the McCourts have so obviously enjoyed over the course of the last couple of years, due first to Frank’s highly successful family memoir, "Angela’s Ashes," and then to Malachy’s own virginal thrust into the world of literature, "A Monk Swimming."

On one level, "A Couple of Blaguards" is what it always was, a loosely strung garland of anecdotes, memories, jokes, songs and in its best, too infrequent moments, genuinely moving evocations of the brothers’ deprived boyhood in the poverty-stricken back alleys of the proud, somewhat starchily pretentious city on the River Shannon.

In its original, rather shambling incarnation, the show had, at least, the virtue of a somewhat selective authenticity, and the bizarre sense of odd immediacy that accompanied it. Now, with the participants’ specific investment in the material reduced to zero, "A Couple of Blaguards" comes off mainly as a theatrical curiosity performed by a pair of normally able actors going through the motions required by role for which they aren’t particularly well-suited.

Mickey Kelly has done excellent work for the Bronx-based Macalla Theater Company, a group whose artistic director he has recently become, and, more to the point, he has toured in "A Couple of Blaguards," playing Frank opposite Malachy McCourt playing himself.

The current production is Shay Duffin’s first encounter with the show, although he made something of a name for himself some decades ago playing another noted Irish larger-than-life character, the late Brendan Behan, in "Confessions of an Irish Rebel," a durable one-man-show he also wrote.

Perhaps inevitably, and probably as a result of the peculiarly "once-removed" quality of the current venture, neither actor is shown off to particularly good advantage.

A kind of stock company staleness hangs over "A Couple of Blaguards," as the performers give us quick sketches of a series of priests and schoolmasters, not to mention family members, with whom the McCourts came into contact, frequently discordantly, before they deserted their native Ireland in favor of an unknown and somewhat threatening America.

The show’s most haunting moments are its saddest, most wrenching ones, as, to cite one example, one after another of their infant and juvenile siblings dies and is laid to rest in a tiny coffin.

Far too often in their show, Kelly and Duffin throw shawls over their heads, and, at the dreary point, a particularly hideous red wig, to create a sense of the aunts and neighbors the boys knew in Limerick, and then the slyly flirtatious Irish virgins they encountered in New York dance halls catering to the young and the newly arrived from "the other side."

The production, directed by Howard Platt and designed by Gloria Parker, with lighting by Matt Berman, is simplicity itself. The stage is framed by a pair of photographic panels, with Limerick at the left and New York at the right, and, between them, a kitchen table and a couple of chairs.

Among the pleasures of "A Couple of Blaguards" is a moment in which Ginger Rogers is revealed to be, not only an occasion of sin, but a threat to the general health by virtue of the consumption-inducing dust that rises as she dances. At the same time, Errol Flynn is dethroned from the pious Irish cinematic pantheon when it is revealed that he has been through a divorce.

Some of the show’s images are appealing, including a recollection of a winsome maiden with "a Toni perm you couldn’t shift with a jackhammer."

Overall, alas, there’s far too much cartoonish coarse acting, and far too much playing for easy, even cheap laughs where a dollop of genuine feeling might have served far better.

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