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Tucson Weekly Wicked Irish Wit

"A Couple of Blaguards" enlivens the stage.

By Margaret Regan

JANUARY 26, 1998:  THE SETTING MAY be a bar somewhere in America, as the program notes say, but A Couple of Blaguards really takes place in the hearts and minds of a pair of Irishmen.

Through language that rushes out in an astonishing, unstoppable stream, dipping by turns into tomfoolery and tragedy, the real-life characters of Frank and Malachy McCourt reincarnate the miserable lanes of their Limerick youth and the unwelcoming streets of their New York City young manhood. Divided neatly in two, the first act skewers the boys' wretched upbringing in the Irish slums of the '30s and '40s; the second act chronicles their preposterous adventures in the New World. (How about a job minding 69 canaries in a Manhattan hotel?) The play's Irish theme makes it a surprising choice for the usually regionally oriented Borderlands, but its shrewd picture of the immigrant experience is right up the Borderlands' alley. The local company presents this traveling play from Periatkos Productions at the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts.

With its unsentimental sendups of wicked wakes, a First Holy Communion fiasco and laughably lurid sermons by prurient priests, Blaguards is one of the funniest things to hit Tucson stages in years. (It must be admitted that the Irish Catholics among us--particularly those raised in the medieval Church of pre-Vatican II days--may venerate it more than others do.) The two players who blather, sing and step-dance their way through the work's two hours are superlative. Graham Thatcher takes on the more ribald Malachy, the irreverent younger brother who says he resorted to acting in America because he didn't want to work. Alan Austin, of Phoenix, is the melancholy Frank, terrorized as a boy by theological conundrums and run ragged by assorted draconian authority figures. Transforming themselves with a mere tea towel on the head or a rag around the neck, this pair conjures up no fewer than 47 personages, from head-beating schoolmasters to priests who threaten little boys with hell to American women overly susceptible to men with an Irish brogue.

Frank McCourt, of course, is the retired New York City schoolteacher who found himself a latter-day millionaire and literary lion with the publication of his searing memoir Angela's Ashes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Couple of Blaguards is a kind of precursor to the book; it began life years ago as an improvisational cabaret act, written and performed by both brothers in New York. They claim they got its title when their hard-as-nails Mam, Angela herself, came to see it one night. "It's all a pack of lies," she yelled out of the audience. "I wouldn't get on stage with a couple of blaguards like you."

True or not, the play's first act covers some of the same ground as Angela's Ashes, but Blaguards mostly converts the book's wrenching tragedies into black comedy. And Act II serves as a preview for 'Tis, the sequel to Angela's Ashes that Frank McCourt intends to publish in a year's time.

The raucous Blaguards is not for the easily offended. At times the brothers veer dangerously close to the stereotype of the drunken stage Irishman, and their reminiscences about the Catholic Church are hardly rosy. (Says Frank of his multi-ethnic New York City pupils: "Once in a while I had an Irish kid, kicked out of Catholic school for thinking.") They're equal-opportunity insulters, though: they cheerfully target every possible group, from elderly religious ladies to gay window dressers, from pontificating politicians to Americans searching for their roots.

Yet we forgive this pair of irreverent sinners, because most often, and most endearingly, they aim their wicked Irish wit straight back at themselves.


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