A Couple of Blaguards
By Frank McCourt & Malachy McCourt. Directed by Howard Platt. Starring Howard Platt and Jarlath Conroy. Through June 2 at Long Wharf Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven. (203) 787-4282, longwharf.org
While Eric Ting's production of Bruce Norris' Clybourne Park continues its excoriation of repressed contemporary racism on the Long Wharf mainstage, a different play is exploring the intersection of time, place, cultural heritage and corny jokes in a much different manner next door at Long Wharf's Stage II space.
An autobiographical storytelling revue based on (and originally performed by) Frank and Malachy McCourt, A Couple of Blaguards (which is not part of the Long Wharf's regular season, but a summer booking that happened to open while the final mainstage show of 2012-13 is still up) was first produced in the mid-1980s. This was some years after Malachy McCourt had earned some celebrity as an actor, talk-show guest (and host) and New York bar owner. It was also over a decade before Frank McCourt published his bestselling (and Pulitzer-winning) memoirs Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, which bring a darker and more naturalistic take to the same basic stories: the poverty of his childhood and the excitement of his move to America. Frank McCourt, who died in 2009, lived the last 15 years of his life in Roxbury, Connecticut.
Those who've picked apart the details in Angela's Ashes, accusing Frank McCourt of exaggerating his life story, should get a load of A Couple of Blaguards, in which everything is reduced to caricatures and vaudeville jokes. Howard Platt plays Malachy, Jarlath Conroy plays Frank, and the two men also play every other character in their McCourt's lives, from nattering old women to obfuscating politicians to comely librarians and overbearing administrators. Conroy's got a hangdog "stop picking on me" expression that he uses frequently, and which may remind you of the little old man Jackie Wright from "The Benny Hill Show." Platt mugs less, and doesn't engage in prolonged "Whaaaa..?"-type reactions the way Conroy does, but he's got his own sort of big-comedy directness, having been a sturdy straightman to Redd Foxx as Hoppy the Cop in "Sanford & Son" (not to mention recurring roles on "The Bob Newhart Show," "Alice" and "Evening Shade").
Here's how one of Frank's marriages is staged: Platt, holding a cloth over his head to suggest he's a woman, screeches "I want a divorce!" To which Conroy, seated and perturbed, barks out "Well, get it from somebody else!"
The bits are unquestionably amusing, drawn as they are from classic vaudeville routines about schoolboy mischief, first communions and stranger-in-a-strange land foibles. These sketches are punctuated with old Irish drinking songs. The narrative is fluid, with Platt and Conroy staying "on" and casually aware of each other, even when they're not really in a scene. Conroy's delivery is particularly engaging, and familiar to those who saw his jabbering as the Gravedigger opposite Paul Giamatti in Hamlet at the Yale Rep a couple of months ago.
The atmosphere of A Couple of Blaguards couldn't be more informal: the actors enter drinking pints of Guinness, and sit at a table-and-chairs set which might as well have been borrowed from somebody's kitchen. A fake stone wall provides a backdrop. Costumes are limited to coats, hats, scarfs and white-collared black dickie (to denote a clergyman). The recent Yale Rep production of a more contemporary rustic Irish comedy/drama, Marie Jones' Stones in His Pockets, provided the same sort of scenic environment and quick-change costumes, then busied it all up with machinery and projections. A Couple of Blaguards doesn't get complicated, even as the brothers' lives do. The show covers the boys coming-of-age (replete with masturbation jokes), their respective moves to American and their mother's death. The script has not been updated to include the many adventures the men had in the '90s and '00s.
The title says it all — two old Irish guys sitting around talking. A Couple of Blaguards is what you get, and for a summer's evening, that may be just what you've been looking for.