Shortly before a recent performance of "A Couple of Blaguards" at Ford's Theatre in Washington half the cast -- that is to say, one Malachy McCourt -- stood on the sidewalk outside the theater, sharing some story or other with an acquaintance.
A few minutes later, McCourt strode on stage, dressed in the same blue shirt and khaki trousers he'd been wearing on the street. His performance might well have been a continuation of his previous conversation -- that's how easily and amiably "A Couple of Blaguards" flows.
The show is a two-man autobiographical revue created about two decades ago by Malachy and his older brother, Frank. When the brothers began performing "Blaguards," Malachy was the more successful and better known -- an actor whose extensive TV credits range from talk shows to soaps.
Then, in 1997, Frank, a retired New York school teacher, received the Pulitzer Prize for his memoir about growing up in Ireland, "Angela's Ashes," and Frank's fame eclipsed that of his brother (although Malachy has also published a best-selling memoir, "A Monk Swimming"). With " 'Tis," the sequel to "Angela's Ashes," released just last month, Frank is now a full-time writer. His role in "A Couple of Blaguards" is played at Ford's by Mickey Kelly, a professional Irish actor.
In tone, the show -- which has been revised and expanded over the years -- comes closer to the relatively light, chatty "A Monk Swimming" than to the dire, depressing "Angela's Ashes." However, theatergoers who have read "Angela's Ashes" will better appreciate the pathos underlying the script's references to the childhood deaths of three of the McCourts' younger siblings and an upbringing so poor that the family shared the lavatory outside the house with 16 other families.
At the same time, fans of "Angela's Ashes" might feel "Blaguards" lacks a certain depth of feeling. While that may be true, it is important to realize that the ability to laugh, sing and spin a background of misery into an evening of ebullient storytelling is surely one of the qualities that helped the McCourts survive and prosper.
Directed by Howard Platt, the first half of "A Couple of Blaguards" consists of tales and songs from Limerick, Ireland, where the McCourt boys were raised; the second half concerns their adult adventures in the United States.
Although both McCourt and Kelly assume various roles, McCourt is the one who most often impersonates others -- from his strict grandmother, appalled when young Frank vomits up the wafer from his First Communion, to a priest who denounces motion pictures as "the Californication" of children, to a hilarious take on the mayor of Limerick, who preposterously proclaims: "I see before me men standing who died for Ireland. They're walking around without jobs."
Kelly is an able co-star and possibly a better performer than Frank, but it's difficult not to imagine how much more fun and enlightening it must be to see both McCourt brothers telling their story on stage together.
"Most people drink to make themselves interesting. I drank to make other people as interesting as myself," McCourt, a recovering alcoholic, boasts in the show.
The actors may only be drinking root beer on stage, but "A Couple of Blaguards" proves McCourt's statement is not idle boast. It's an evening brimming with congeniality and high spirits.
`A Couple of Blaguards'
Where: Ford's Theatre, 511 10th St. N.W., Washington
When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 31