BWW Reviews: Keegan Theatre Presents Compelling A COUPLE OF BLAGUARDS to Open its Season
The story of the McCourt brothers, Frank and Malachy, is now well-known thanks to the publication of Frank's best-selling memoir Angela's Ashes in 1996. It's a familiar and relatable story- one of two Irish Catholic lads growing up in Limerick and then making the move to New York (specifically Brooklyn). There, they consider what it means to be Irish and how their roots, heritage, and childhood experiences influence the path their lives will take as adults in America. A Couple of Blaguards, the McCourt brothers' autobiographical comedy play, allows the brothers to recall their lives thus far in snippet format as they drink some Guinness.
Keegan Theatre, a local company with affinity for all things Irish, has chosen to mount this play to open its fall season. It's minimalist yet innovative approach to presenting the material is fitting for the endearing 'everyman' story. Director Colin Smith wisely allows the McCourt brothers' words to be the focus rather than superfluous production elements. Mark A. Rhea's set design, resembling that of a modest, ordinary venue for drinking and socializing, assists in setting the tone. The set is also functional and can be easily transformed.
Without two strong actors that are capable of portraying the brothers, but also other family members, friends, and colleagues in their lives (or at least those present in their recollections), it's likely that production success would be harder to achieve. The play itself is certainly well-written, and because it's auto-biographical no anecdote seems forced so as simply convey a larger message. However, it's not exactly a riveting story- if one has heard these kinds of stories before (and we probably all have). Thanks to the charm and acting talents of Timothy Hayes Lynch (Frank McCourt) and Robert Leembruggen (Malachy McCourt), it's much easier to forget the "what's new here?" question and just immerse one's self in the relatable, and often times funny, story that is conveyed in simple words and songs.
McCourt and Leembruggen are endearing as the McCourt brothers and possess a natural chemistry with one another. Their brotherly relationship is definitely believable- as are their Irish roots. Lynch is appropriately more reserved and contemplative as Frank while Leembruggen lets Malachy's larger-than-life personality and high levels of energy shine through.
As they recall memories of their past, they take on other characters in their lives- family members, bosses etc.- with simple and quick prop (Carol H. Baker and Katrina Wiskup), costume (Emily Riehl-Bedford), and vocal changes or adjustments. While some attempts at this are more successful than others from an acting standpoint, the cast does have a tremendous ability to seamlessly move from one anecdote to another and quickly establish context. Leembruggen is particularly successful at channeling their Irish mother, while Lynch shines in taking on his employer in New York.
Because the two men are required to portray the brothers and the brothers portraying other people in their lives in Ireland and Brooklyn as part of their recollections, it's imperative that they are able to use a variety of accents and vocal inflections to distinguish one character from another. When required to play Irish men, I found their accents to be inconsistent and, at times, unnatural at the performance I witnessed. However, I realize this situation might improve throughout the course of the run. Perhaps the use of a dialect coach would also allow the speaking style to be more organic and concise.
Despite these minor quibbles, this is a strong start to the Keegan Theatre's season. It's nice to see the company return to its Irish roots once again. Thanks to the strong cast and inspired direction, it's a pleasant way to spend a few hours.