Frank and Malachy McCourt, A Couple of Blaguards, Keep Shaking the Family Tree

Frank and Malachy McCourt, A Couple of Blaguards, Keep Shaking the Family Tree Few, if any, openings of an off-Broadway show draw a camera crew from "60 Minutes," least of all one that has been kicking around the boards in some form or another for 20 years. That was, however, what happened on Jan. 13, when A Couple of Blaguards clambered onstage at the Triad Theatre. Actors Mickey Kelly and Shay Duffin play Frank and Malachy McCourt, in a piece that chronicles the brothers misadventures in Ireland and America -- not the kind of thing that would have interested CBS on a dismal, snowy evening in the play's past appearances on the New York stage.
Mickey Kelly and Shay Duffin portray the McCourts in A Couple of Blaguards.
Mickey Kelly and Shay Duffin portray the McCourts in A Couple of Blaguards. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

Few, if any, openings of an off-Broadway show draw a camera crew from "60 Minutes," least of all one that has been kicking around the boards in some form or another for 20 years. That was, however, what happened on Jan. 13, when A Couple of Blaguards clambered onstage at the Triad Theatre. Actors Mickey Kelly and Shay Duffin play Frank and Malachy McCourt, in a piece that chronicles the brothers misadventures in Ireland and America -- not the kind of thing that would have interested CBS on a dismal, snowy evening in the play's past appearances on the New York stage.

But that was before Frank won the Pulitzer Prize for his world-renowned memoir Angela’s Ashes, and Malachy added his own collection of reminiscences, A Monk Swimming, to best-sellers lists. At an age when Americans, in Frank’s words, "are supposed to go away and die somewhere in Florida," the McCourts, born into dire poverty, have bloomed into celebrities, and their production into a cultural event of sorts.

"It’s very funny, and very flattering, all this attention," says Malachy. "When you’re born poor, you have no self-esteem or self-respect. You wonder, 'Who the **** wants to be you? You think anyone aspires to the heights of a slum guttersnipe in the lanes of Limerick?' " At that, he roars with laughter.

Not all that long ago, it wasn’t so funny for either of the brothers. The saga of the McCourt family is the subject of the two books, and A Couple of Blaguards. Frank and Malachy, born in Brooklyn, left America, where poverty ground the family down, for Ireland, the birthplace of their parents -- only to endure harsher privations. Frank returned to New York City in 1949, as alcoholism, abandonment, the tragic deaths of siblings, and the iron hand of the Catholic Church cut a swath through the McCourts. He sent for Malachy in 1952, and the two worked innumerable odd jobs before settling into their careers: Frank, as a teacher for 30 years, predominantly in Staten Island and the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Malachy as a barkeep and actor.

The past gnawed silently at them for years. "There was the shame of poverty over us," recalls Malachy, who addresses his own bouts with the bottle in A Monk Swimming. Storytelling provided a way out of an emotional logjam. Says Frank, "I’d been telling stories for years, to the school kids -- who, on St. Patrick’s Day, would all turn Irish, and give me green bagels and that sort of thing. I was an exotic to them. As I told the stories, I discovered things about myself, and that led me back into my past, which I had not been planning to do. But since Malachy was up on the East Side telling his own stories, I thought we should put them together, and I came up with a title." A Couple of Blaguards, conceived and performed by the McCourts, "premiered" before audiences of friends and family members in New York bar rooms in the late Seventies. "The main effort we put into it back then was amusing ourselves and anyone in the immediate vicinity," says Malachy. Only in 1984 did the two commit the piece to paper, for performances at the Village Vanguard. "Before that, we just got up on stage and started in on it; it used to meander on, without any discipline," he says.

Stage fright was not an affliction suffered by the McCourts. "Being a teacher in the battlefield of the New York City high schools gives you more acting experience than anybody; after that, I think I could lecture to Saddam Hussein’s cabinet with no problem," Frank says.

Malachy has been acting professionally since 1957, when, much to his surprise, the then-longshoreman replaced a performer in The Tinker’s Wedding, part of an off-Broadway production of three one-acts by J.M. Synge. "I saw the humor in it; the other actor didn’t," he recalls. "I thought, `All it takes to be an actor is be Irish!' " There was more to it than that, but Malachy has since gone on to specialize in "Irish" parts, in plays like Remembrance, Da, and Mass Appeal, TV shows like "Ryan’s Hope" (eight years serving up drinks as Kevin the bartender, "saying deep, wonderful things like `Two more beers?' and `No, I haven’t seen him' and getting fat sums of money for it!"), and movies that have ranged from The Devil’s Own and Reversal of Fortune to the cult favorite Q, where, as the police commissioner, he sends New York’s finest after a giant winged serpent that has roosted in the Chrysler Building.

A Couple of Blaguards, a mix of stories, songs, and doggerel poetry, has been a constant in the brothers’ lives. Director Howard Platt has seen it through several different productions, including this one; the McCourts have also taken it on the road to Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Boston, and even as far as cruise ships in India and Africa. Ireland was a natural stop on the agenda. "For the young Irish, who didn’t know the pre-Vatican Council Church, our show is a look at something long gone," says Frank. Adds Malachy, who most recently played himself in productions staged last year in Dublin and Limerick, "The Irish are changing. The stereotype of the loud, boisterous Irishman is absolutely incorrect -- they don’t like to draw attention to themselves. But the younger people there were unrestrained in their laughter and enthusiasm."

Both say Blaguards works as well without them as it does with them. "Two disc jockeys in Sacramento played us, to good reviews, as did two Episcopalians in St. Paul," says Malachy, who adds, "When I performed it with Mickey, I never asked him to impersonate Frank; that’s not what the show is about." Says Frank, "Blaguards is about rhythms, and if the actors find the right ones, it can be very rich. Shays is quite eccentric and hilarious, and Mickey is more innocent, and more urgent, than me than I was when I played it. Malachy and I were more liturgical in our delivery, about things that meant something to us personally, which is not the case with other performers."

Malachy jokes of Blaguards, "My feeling is it will done again and again after we’re dead; I just hope I’m as amusing in death as I am, reasonably, in life." Performing it eventually inspired the two blaguards (slang for "roughnecks") to turn their stories into books, which, to their bemusement, has led to their current fame. "I’ve accepted it," says Frank. "I never expected Angela’s Ashes to garner any awards, and have over four million copies in print. But it’s a learning experience, like teaching. It was a shock for me the first time a student raised a hand and asked `Why was Hamlet so mean to Ophelia?' `What!' I thought -- in Ireland, if you did that, the teachers would say `You shut up -- we’ll tell you why Hamlet was so mean to Ophelia.' I’m learning to liberate myself."

Frank is finishing a new book, for publication in September, called 'Tis, about the teaching experiences at the base of his literary career. "I’m wearying of autobiography, though; my next book will be about the third wife of Attila the Hun or something equally remote," he vows. Before that particular liberation, the McCourt story will receive a fresh telling at year-end, when the film version of Angela’s Ashes is released. "Its themes are universal, so there can be another perspective on the material," he says.

Malachy reserves judgment, if only for a moment: "Though they’re very good at what they do, what will an English director [Alan Parker], and an English actress [Emily Watson] and a Scottish actor [Robert Carlyle] as our parents, make of the material? On the other hand, how many other people are going to see themselves as children and as grownups on film and on the stage? So I say, `Sock it to me, baby!' "

On opening night of A Couple of Blaguards, the McCourts were called onstage, where they hammed it up for a few minutes with the actors as "60 Minutes" gathered additional footage for their piece on Frank, which is scheduled to air next month (the second of two documentaries about the family, by Malachy’s son Conor, will be shown on Cinemax in March). They recalled how their mother, Angela, was shocked by the show when she first saw it, standing up and shouting, "It wasn’t that way at all; it’s all a pack of lies!" as the first act ended.

Frank concluded the off-the-cuff remarks with another anecdote about Angela, who returned to New York and spent the last quarter-century of her life in the city. It’s the sort of story that makes the Triad, offering food and grog, a homey place to be on a cold winter’s night while A Couple of Blaguards is in town.

"She loved the jumbo shrimps at the Chinese restaurant we used to take her to -- just loved them. Lived for them. For a change, we took her to a Greek restaurant, where we had feta cheese. I asked, `How do you like the feta cheese?' and she said, `What?` I said, `The feta cheese -- the goat cheese,' and she said, `Goat cheese? I’d ever eat any part of a goat -- a goat bit me once long ago and I’ve never had anything to do with one since!' She paused, then added, `But a jumbo shrimp never caused me any trouble.' "

--Bob Cashill