BROTHERS IN ARMS Tony Reilly (right) and Paul Haley carry several roles each. CREDIT Todd Brian Backus
Between the two brothers McCourt, both immigrants from Ireland, the achievements run wide and deep: The elder, Frank, was a widely celebrated teacher and the renowned author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela's Ashes, a memoir of his childhood in Limerick. The younger, Malachy, has hosted radio shows, acted on the stage and in a range of TV soaps and series, written a history of the beloved Irish ballad Danny Boy, and even run as a Green Party candidate for governor of New York in 2006. The brothers and their work have complemented each other colorfully, a fraternal dynamic that pervades the autobiographical two-man show they co-wrote and performed, A Couple of Blaguards, which is onstage now starring the marvelous Paul Haley and Tony Reilly. This fleet, smart, richly funny show, directed by Reilly and Corey Gagne for the American Irish Repertory Ensemble, is an unqualified delight.
Once Frank (Haley) and Malachy (Reilly) start the show with a full Guinness apiece, A Couple of Blaguards uses an engaging series of sketches to tell of Frank and Malachy's childhood in impoverished Limerick, their emigration to America, and their paths to finding their respective callings. With a writer's eye for detail and language, a performer's glee in physicality, and above all a consummate ear for storytelling, the McCourts and AIRE treat us to an exuberant array of forms: stump speeches, sermons and other Catholic admonishments, songs, dances, and enactments of everything from wakes to seductions. Haley and Reilly each play numerous roles in this briskly paced show, including priests, widows, and a nymphomaniac, as well as, of course, the intrepid and charismatic Frank (Haley) and Malachy (Reilly) themselves.
The two brothers have different personalities and comedic styles, as do these two actors, who have worked together often (their work as brawling brothers in The Lonesome West remains one of my favorite Portland shows) and who are themselves a wonderfully complementary fit for a two-hander: the fleshier Reilly performs a broader, hammier comedy to the angular Haley's nimble, dead-panned comic precision. Reilly does a great send-up of a Catholic priest, all booming, blustery threats; then he flounces and simpers in a red wig as one of Frank's paramours; and he does particularly hilarious work with the inane promises of a wide and shifty-eyed Irish mayor stumping for re-election ("There should be lavatories the length and breadth of Ireland!").
Haley, an excellent natural clown with his agile, sometimes almost elastic frame, makes Frank's antics subtler and more measured than Malachy's; his comedy is meticulous and wide-ranging, and performed so deftly as to feel utterly effortless. One minute his young Frank sticks out his tongue and lets his lean frame bristle with a child's mingled fear and irreverence, and the next, as a dour widow, he purses up his mouth and delivers crisp slaps to the hands of an insurance man. He sings Irish songs a cappella, performs a little soft-shoe, and even does a bang-up job, with a quiet, dead-panned solemnity, of playing the spoons.