A COUPLE OF BLAGUARDS
at the Briar Street Theatre
Five years ago, on a theatrical tour of Ireland, I had the experience of visiting the coastal town of Limerick. Limerick's a dreary little place--drab, small-minded, devoid of any signs of ambition, architecturally stuck in mid-20th-century drabness. Yet it is also home to a collection of towering, almost majestic old stone castles and churches. The mixture of ancient Celtic grandeur and mundane modernity--like an Irish Rock Island with ruins--fascinated me in a way that more truly historic (and better preserved) sites in my ancestral homeland failed to do.
A number of people--shopkeepers, waitresses, bartenders, and the like--asked me what part of the U.S. I was from; when I told them I was a Chicagoan, they invariably responded with, well, not pleasure, but a dully agreeable acknowledgment: they all had relatives here (usually in the suburbs). It was in Limerick that I recognized an attitude that I had always identified with Chicago and now was able to trace back to Catholic Ireland: a chip-on-the-shoulder skepticism, a sort of all-pervasive "prove it to me."
The following year, I was delighted to encounter A Couple of Blaguards, Malachy and Frank McCourt's two-man show--barroom revue, really--about growing up in Limerick. I was not the only one delighted; the McCourt brothers came to the now-defunct CrossCurrents cabaret for a two-week run and stayed for eight months due to a box-office boom. In the intimate confines of CrossCurrents, Blaguards came across as a spontaneous Irish gabfest by two slightly inebriated brothers--indeed, the Irish woman I took to the show dubbed it "a coupla tight micks sittin' around talkin'."
The McCourts have returned to Chicago with their show for a limited run; in the intervening years they've polished their material and their performances, but they've lost something, too. On the night I saw the show last week, I missed the sense of conviviality and spontaneity that was so central to its original appeal.
Most of the best material is still there: the two brothers' account of the absurdities of growing up under the thumb of their maternal trinity--Mother McCourt, Mother Church, and Mother Ireland. (They were raised by their mother, they advise us, because their dad "got an Irish divorce--he disappeared.") There are still the memories of childhood--going to movies where the usher forbade them to cheer for "divorced film stars or Indians," and going to Catholic school until they were "kicked out for thinking."
Malachy, the portly, white-haired younger brother, still does his impersonations of ridiculous authority figures--the fire-and-brimstone priest, the stern schoolmaster, the blustering, malaprop mayor ("Half of the lies they tell about me are not true!"); Frank, the droll and dopey-faced deadpan older brother, is still the embodiment of Irish male passive resistance as he whines that he doesn't mind being guilty of sloth because "if you do nothin' you can't be committin' the other deadly sins."
The second act, as before, follows the grown-up brothers as they emigrate to the U.S.: Frank's misadventures as he stumbles from job to job--soldier, schoolteacher, canary keeper (a dismal failure at that, he has to glue the dead birds to their perches to deceive his boss)--and his belated discovery of his own cultural heritage at the hands of an American girlfriend who makes him read Finnegans Wake; and Malachy's all-too-easy success in show biz, trading in his Irishness on TV talk shows and soap operas. The climax, as before, is the brothers' disastrous attempt to reunite their mother with their fickle father.
The McCourts deliver their anecdotes spiced up with a collection of Irish barroom ditties and comic caricatures of the people who've crossed their long lives. But what once seemed immediate and playful now seems a routine, even a chore: the impersonations lack life and sink into stereotype, the songs seem delivered as dutifully as a catechism response, and the wonderful air of mischievous discovery--albeit tempered by that dry Irish skepticism I spoke of--is gone. Worst of all, the material seems truncated and rushed: the punch lines are all there, but the sense of stretching out a story, of building image upon image and verbal pattern upon verbal pattern to create folk art out of colloquial language, is lost. I can only hope the performance I reviewed last week was an "off" one; in its original form, Blaguards was too authentic and special an entertainment to be processed into just one more ethnic comedy act.