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I’ve always been a little envious of people with a strong cultural identity. Me, I’m a mutt: some Scots, some Irish, some ethnically ill-defined and oddly militaristic Quakers. (On my mother’s side; they reportedly moved to Georgia to side with the South in the War of Northern Aggression. Don’t ask.)
But I never learned much, growing up, about any of those cultures; certainly I never felt part of any of them. So the boyfriend, a product of Cajun country who speaks an archaic variant of French with his grandmother, and my friend Miss Nancy, who phones her abuelito every couple of weeks in a small town in Nicaragua, make me a little green.
Likewise the Frank and Malachy McCourt who present themselves onstage at Ford’s Theatre. I say “who present themselves” because Frank is not the real Frank—he’s presumably off somewhere writing a screenplay or a sequel to his Pulitzer-winning Angela’s Ashes, and he’s impersonated here by an ingratiating fellow named Mickey Kelly—though Malachy is actually Malachy, the actor (Ryan’s Hope), sometime radio personality, full-time bon vivant, and now author (of the recent best seller A Monk Swimming and, with Frank, of this evening
And I say “evening of theater” because A Couple of Blaguards is nothing like an actual play. It’s a perfectly agreeable little package, an episodic evening in good company with tall tales and tall glasses of some foul-looking brew, but there’s no through-line, no story arc, no real unifying theme except the idea of Irishness. Not that either man pretends that there’s supposed to be: One of the first stories they tell is about how this production came to be. It involves, of course, hyperbole and alcohol, two of the essential ingredients for any good Irish narrative.
Malachy and the faux Frank like to talk, pints in hand, about their hometown. Limerick is “so historic, the favorite word of the Limerick man is ‘was.’”
They are likewise enamored of reflecting on the women of said city: “Is there anyone in the civilized world who hasn’t heard of their beauty, their piety, and the ferocity of their chastity? The favorite word of the Limerick woman is ‘no.’”
And so it goes as they grow up, grow worldly, leave Limerick for America, and learn to thrive in a culture not their own. The settings of their stories change, but the themes remain constant: Mother Machree, Mother Church, Mother Ireland. “Like all Irishmen,” Frank says, “we were trapped in a trinity of maternities.”
Always there is that mix of affection and cynicism about the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church and its mixed messages, about the wicked gossiping of otherwise pious women, about the endearing unreliability of the male of the breed, about a worldview in which Ginger Rogers is “not only an occasion for sin, she’s the direct cause of all the galloping pneumonia in Ireland”—in short, about the Irish and how they got that way (which phrase is a blatant theft from the title of Frank McCourt’s musical revue on similar subjects, which played New York’s Irish Repertory Theatre last year).
Which brings up an observation that may not be entirely on point and certainly isn’t charitable: Doesn’t he have any other schtick? What with Angela and The Irish and Blaguards and his new memoir ‘Tis, the man has become a veritable cottage industry of Irishness. (Hmmm…Perhaps this is where my envy over not having a strong cultural identity of my own turns to bitterness.)
Nonetheless, Malachy, with his round red face and his wisps of white hair, is so amiable a presence that you’re minded to excuse the sentimentality that sticks to most of the evening. Malachy is amiable even when he’s impersonating a Redemptorist priest, preaching brimstone at a room full of hormonal boys on their annual religious retreat: “When you go to your homes tonight, take icy cold showers….And when Satan comes to tempt you with the sins of the flesh, think of those two boys choking, gasping, screaming for mercy, doomed to Hell for all eternity! God loves you, dear boys.”
There’s lots of jocularity about sex, in fact: Masturbation causes pimples and madness, says a catechism teacher (Malachy again), and “You, McCourt, you’re a prime candidate for the lust department of the lunatic asylum.”
There’s a bit about a not-too-bright politician, a kind of Mayor Malaprop who speaks to an “extinguished assemblage” about his plans to “put shoes on all the poor footless children of Limerick,” and it’s funny enough even if it feels more like invention than recollection.
And there’s a bit about Frank’s day of First Communion, on which he overeats after Mass and barfs up the Body of Christ in his grandmother’s back yard. This transgression does not endear him to his grandmother, who’s already irritated about his uncooperative hair: “If your mother had married a decent Limerick man you wouldn’t have that standing-up, North of Ireland, Presbyterian hair.”
There are many more bits, some of them more amusing than these and many of them less so. They’re spiced with moments of melancholy, as in the story of a brother’s death, or longing disguised as archness, as in the speech that gets Frank into NYU: “I want to be assimilated. I want to have a name like Chook. I want to summer in the Hamptons and caress the golden-brown thighs of a Presbyterian.”
The general tone is blue-collar Oscar Wilde, but the jokes and the approach and especially the unaccompanied songs wear thin around the time the two get to an anecdote about their mother and the moon landing. But there’s nothing, really, to complain about; there’s no harm, no spite anywhere in the evening. This Couple of Blaguards is good-hearted and good fun—and maybe that’s recommendation enough. CP