"A Couple of Blaguards," at Keegan Theatre, is a blithe, light-hearted look at the lives of two brothers, Frank and Malachy McCourt. The pair tries to survive as best they can without much money in Limerick, Ireland, then make their way to a very different life in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"A Couple of Blaguards" was written by the brothers before they wrote their most famous works: "Angela's Ashes" by Frank and "A Monk Swimming" by Malachy. But when the play begins, the brothers are thinking back to a period when they were illiterate, ignorant of the great masters of Irish literature and lacking mentors to guide them toward any kind of future in the field of letters.
They lyrically reminisce about Limerick, an ancient place full of churches and broad streets. Then they quickly make it clear that they did not live on a broad street, but at the end of an ungainly lane near a lavatory used by 16 families.
The play is structured as a revue/vaudeville act, with a hefty dose of Irish music mixed in. Thinking back, the brothers recall how they started looking for "consolations" in Ireland, like the fun they could have at the expense of religion, their school, their home, their country.
'A Couple of Blaguards'
Most of the parts, other than those of Frank and Malachy themselves, are acted out by Robert Leembruggen, who plays Malachy. With a scarf around his neck he becomes a scolding priest who delivers fire-and-brimstone sermons. With a cane in hand he becomes the strict schoolmaster, who punishes the boys for any offense. Scarf on head, he is their mother and grandmother.
The first half of the show, which concentrates on Limerick, feels almost a little too pat, oozing with Celtic blarney. The second half of the show is more balanced and has a more authentic feel as the brothers struggle to survive in Brooklyn. Frank (Timothy Hayes Lynch), with his deadpan humor, is the perfect foil for the more spontaneous goofball Malachy.
Though enforced conviviality runs through "Blaguards," there are certainly serious moments. One of the most poignant has to do with the death of their younger brother. Another has to do with the boys' father looking for them and their mother in New York. Those sad stories are well-acted and somehow more memorable than the relentlessly comic. On press night it almost seemed that the comedy was improvised, or else director Colin Smith's timing was way off.
The show takes place on a nearly empty stage, effectively designed by Mark A. Rhea, where a table, a bar, chairs, stools and many hats and scarves provide Malachy and Frank with all the props they need to describe the Irish-American places they cherish.