I'm falling down on the job. Normally, I see at least twice as many things as I write about, but out-of-town travel (including side trips to First City to catch the National Symphony's "Soundtracks" festival and the Vuillard show at the National Gallery) kept me off the boulevards and byways of Second City for much of January. Hence I had to call my shots carefully on the rare days when I was in town, since I didn't want to waste a second.
One thing I knew I didn't want to miss was Adam Guettel's "Floyd Collins," for whose week- long run I made a special trip back to Manhattan. Playwrights Horizons, the Theater Row company that specializes in new works by American playwrights and theatrical songwriters, is celebrating the opening of its brand-new headquarters and performing space on 42nd Street by giving informal benefit "revivals" of some of the best- known shows it has produced in the past two decades. I wanted to see them all, but since I could only get to one, "Floyd Collins" was the obvious choice.
First produced in Manhattan seven years ago, "Floyd Collins" is a musical about the hapless Kentuckian who got trapped in an underground cave in 1925, attracted the attention of the press and metamorphosed into a full-blown media darling before starving to death two weeks later. Billy Wilder made a ferociously cynical movie, "Ace in the Hole," on the same subject, but "Floyd Collins" is a very different kettle of fish, for Guettel's country- flavored, self-effacingly sophisticated songs and Tina Landau's laconic book transform Collins's pitiful tale into a subtle parable of the coming of modernity to rural America.
Simply directed by Landau on a near-bare stage, this performance, which reunited much of the cast of the 1996 production, was superbly effective, and I came away from it convinced that "Floyd Collins" is the first great post-Sondheim musical -- though it is far closer in spirit to a chamber opera than the brainless fare with which Broadway's theaters are presently clogged. In particular, it reminds me of "Paul Bunyan," the Benjamin Britten-W.H. Auden operetta that New York City Opera produced so deftly a couple of years ago. "How Glory Goes," "Collins's" last song -- I'm tempted to call it an aria -- is a haunting declaration of doubt-flecked faith that Britten and Auden would surely have been proud to call their own. I wish I could tell you to go see it, but the run is already over. Fortunately, Nonesuch recorded the 1996 production, and I can't recommend the original-cast album strongly enough. Blessings to Playwrights Horizons for having brought back this remarkable show. Now do it again!
Tied for the top slot on my not-to-be-missed list was "Milton Avery: Paintings and Works on Paper," which was up all month at DC Moore Gallery. I've said before in this space that Avery is sorely in need of blockbuster treatment, preferably right here in New York, but short of that, you couldn't have done better than this 35-piece show, which was for all intents and purposes a flawlessly curated mini- retrospective. It covered everything from the charming but essentially conventional Matisse- like paintings of the '30s to the great late seascapes in which Avery fused representation and color field abstraction into a profoundly personal amalgam.
"Cloud Over Sun" (1959), the signature image of the show, is Avery at his sparest -- and most compelling. There's nothing much to it but a bright yellow sun and a grayish cloud superimposed on a Rothko-like two-tone background of blue sky and bluer sea. At first glance, you'd think a wise child could have painted "Cloud Over Sun"; at second glance, you see in it the hand of a master who in old age learned the secret of reducing the visible world to the purest of essences.
Would that everything I saw last month had been so stirring, but I wasn't as lucky when I went to the Metropolitan Opera House for the opening of Leos Janacek's "Jenufa," a hugely important early-20th-century opera that hadn't figured in the Met's repertoire since it was nearly new.
The cast was vocally strong, but the borrowed production, previously seen in Hamburg and at Covent Garden, was a dud. No sooner did the first-act curtain rise on what appeared to be the inside of a triangular barn than I sighed deeply, knowing the jig was already up. Karita Mattila, the star of the show, is a first- class soprano who clomped around the stage like a barefoot extra from "The Beverly Hillbillies," proving yet again just how ineptly good singers can act in the absence of strong direction.
I also saw a limp, lazy walk- through of George Balanchine's "Raymonda Variations" at New York City Ballet, though that didn't surprise me, since you can never be sure what you're going to get when you show up at the New York State Theater these days. For the same reason, I wasn't any more surprised that the next piece on the program, Balanchine's darkly romantic "Robert Schumann's 'Davidsbundlertanze,' " made a strong impression, mainly because of the still-lustrous presence of Kyra Nichols, who continues to dance as though Mr. B were alive and watching from the wings. (Had that been true, there would have been hell to pay for that "Raymonda Variations" at company class the next day.)
Finally, I managed to hit two nightclubs. Ben Monder, Maria Schneider's amazing guitarist, brought his quartet into the Jazz Standard for an evening of very original compositions that showed off his shimmering tone to startling effect, and Dave's True Story, the kinky lounge band heard on the soundtrack of "Kissing Jessica Stein," made its long-overdue debut at Joe's Pub. David Cantor's deeply weird songs and Kelly Flint's deceptively cheery vocals are as unnerving a combination as ever, and the black-clad downtown crowd loved hearing them hold forth on such topics as failed love, phone sex and why the French can't dance.
Rumor has it that Dave's True Story is headed in the general direction of First City next month, and you can check on the group's whereabouts at www.davestruestory.com. Do so, definitely -- but leave the kids at home.
Forward Glances If you're coming to New York in the next few weeks, keep these events in mind:
* Francesca Zambello's new production of "Les Troyens," Berlioz's mammoth operatic retelling of Virgil's "Aeneid," opens at the Metropolitan Opera House on Feb. 10. Forecast: Strange but thrilling.
* D.C. native Shirley Horn, the grand mistress of sloooooow jazz, returns to New York after a long illness for a three-night stand at Iridium, Feb. 11-13. Safer-than- safe bet: The room will be packed with anxious well-wishers.
* Plan well ahead for the March 7 revival of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at New York City Opera, choreographed by Susan Stroman and starring Claire Bloom, Kate Burton and Jeremy Irons. The Upper West Side has the highest per capita concentration of Sondheim fanatics in the known universe, so this one's likely to be a piping-hot ticket.