Nearly 20 years before the 1996 publication of his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, high school teacher Frank McCourt and his actor/barkeeper/radio host brother Malachy turned their memories of growing up destitute in Limerick and immigrating (separately) to the U.S. into a freewheeling autobiographical play called A Couple of Blaguards.
Actually, it isn’t so much a play as an amiable raconteurial relay wherein the brothers indulge in a two-part harmony of animated barstool recitation, playing supporting roles in each other’s tales and passing the narrative baton. They punctuate their warm remembrances with lusty performances of drinking songs.
Frank McCourt has said it was the show’s successful mid-’80s restaging that gave him the confidence to attempt his story in prose after he retired from teaching in 1987. Even after Angela’s Ashes made Frank a literary star (and Malachy published his own memoir, A Monk Swimming, two years later) the play was periodically revived, though the brothers McCourt ceded the work of playing themselves to other actors.
And so the Keegan Theatre has given us the charming and avuncular Timothy Hayes Lynch and Robert Leembruggen as the charming and avuncular Frank and Malachy. If they aren’t likeable, or if they don’t seem like brothers, there’s no show. But this affable pair easily persuades you of their shared lineage, and two hours in their warm company passes quickly.
We’re spared the wrenching depiction of their impoverished boyhoods that made Frank’s book so heartbreaking. While we hear all about hardscrabble life in Limerick between the wars, where their house was situated near the town latrine, the tone remains breezy. The day Frank takes his first communion in the Catholic church, necessitating repeated visits to the confessional booth, becomes a memorable set piece.
Indeed, the Catholic Church is the closet thing to a villain here. Its campaign to protect boys from the morally acidic influences of Tarzan and Ginger Rogers—“No cheering for divorced movie stars or naked red Indians!” a cinema manager scolds them—and to stave off the physical deformities that result directly and inevitably from boys “getting at themselves,” provide some of the evening’s most amusing anecdotes.
When the army ships him to Germany as a young man, Frank meets a woman who begins his literary education. Malachy’s own path, returning to the U.S. (he was born in Brooklyn, but taken back to Ireland at age three) as a young man and bouncing around various jobs, dominates the play’s second half.
The set and costumes, by Mark A. Rhea and Emily Riehl-Bedford, respectively, are modest; they simply support the notion that we’ve happened upon these guys whiling away a rainy afternoon at a bar, and they’ve found a willing audience on the stool next to theirs.
You could do lots worse.
The show runs to Oct. 14 at Church Street Theater.