At the beginning of last year's season it was said that Broadway never looked worse. This year the same smart people are saying it's worse yet.

There is, however, a silver lining in the proverbial dark cloud. Even though more than half of the Broadway theaters lie quiet and dark, even though this Broadway season began with "Quilters," an odd little musical about pioneer women that no one could fathom, two weeks ago everyone was pleasantly surprised by a play that arrived from New Haven.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which opened in the wonderful rococo Cort Theater on Oct. 11, received rave reviews from nearly all of the major papers. Even John Simon, New York Magazine's feisty critic, had something good to say about it.

Revolving around Ma Rainey, a domineering matriarch, the play concerns the struggles of a group of black blues musicians in Chicago some 50 years ago. "This is a genuine work of art," exclaimed Brendan Gill in The New Yorker, "every turn of whose little plot we follow with interest."

Nearly every Broadway observer agrees that theatergoers are lucky to have a play of such high caliber that also tackles racial bigotry. Everyone, that is, except bottom-line Variety: " 'Ma Rainey's Black Bottom' reveals in August Wilson a new writer of talent and power, but its technical clumsiness and downbeat story make it a difficult box-office proposition."

Should this prophecy prove true (and any sensible person should hope it won't), the thing to do would seem clear -- hightail it to the Cort before it's too late.

Broadway wouldn't be Broadway without an English import or two. Thus, this season, the Royal Shakespeare Company crosses the Atlantic to bring us a knockout double bill: a lavish production of an Anthony Burgess adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac," and an equally opulent yet taut "Much Ado About Nothing."

Last season Shirley MacLaine had her one-woman show on Broadway; this year the one-woman bill has been filled by someone quite different: Whoopi Goldberg. Now in preview sessions, this amazing comedian -- who claims she received her name through divine revelation -- premieres at the Lyceum Oct. 31.

"One day I saw this burning bush," Goldberg explains, "and from out of nowhere a voice said, 'My dear, you have the world's most boring name. You want I should help you?'