As the dormouse in "Alice in Wonderland" observes, "Things are much of a muchness." That's what the cultural life of Second City is like -- much of a muchness, so much so that it's sometimes too much so. On the other hand, what looks cool on paper often fails to pan out in person. Even the near-infallible Metropolitan Museum of Art has been known to slip a cog on occasion, a case in point being the recent opening of the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Collection. You'd think that the first of three planned exhibitions of paintings, sculpture and drawings left to the Met by Henri Matisse's son and daughter-in-law would have been the surest of sure things. Instead, it proved to be eminently skipworthy.
Don't get me wrong: Mr. and Mrs. Matisse gave some nice things to the Met, most of them by Matisse the elder. But even the Matisses' Matisses don't really profit from being shown as a group, while none of the distinguished items by other artists is stop-press news. "Tall Figure," for instance, is a first-class Giacometti bronze, but I've seen plenty of first-class Giacometti bronzes that look pretty much like this one. In any case, too much of the collection is forgettable stuff, some of it by second-stringers. (Raymond Mason, anyone?)
You'd be much better off heading over to Salander-O'Reilly, where "Constable's Skies" is on display through June 25. It's a top-drawer show consisting of two dozen cloud studies and finished paintings by John Constable. The gallery is billing it as "the first sky studies show by John Constable in the United States," which sounds right to me. First or second, it's a dazzler: Constable's cloud paintings, made in 1821 and 1822, rank high among his most personal efforts, all the more so because so many of them seem all but abstract at first glance.
No less lookable is "Neil Welliver: Oil Studies," up at Alexandre Gallery through June 18. It's an exhibition of small-scale preliminary studies for about 35 of Welliver's large paintings of the woods of Maine. He views the world through the prism of "all-over" abstract expressionism, filling his canvases with rich, not quite realistic detail. Here, the modest size of each painting makes for a tauter, more focused effect, in much the same way that Jackson Pollock's smaller drip paintings have a concentration missing from his giant-size work.
What's remarkable about these exhibits is that either could have been booked by the Met without raising a hackle. That's New York for you: Even our galleries mount shows that smaller museums would kill to present. Likewise our smaller theaters, though I wouldn't say that the Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Donald Margulies' "Sight Unseen," now playing at the Biltmore, is the stuff reputations are made of. It's a smartly made, strictly commercial play masquerading as a profound statement about love and loss -- but the star is Laura Linney, which would make "Sight Unseen" worth seeing at twice the price. If there's a more believable actress in America, send me her way.
I'm also an admirer of Bebe Neuwirth, who is as well known here for "Chicago" as for "Cheers," but I didn't get much out of "Here Lies Jenny," her new Kurt Weill revue, running through July 24 at the Zipper Theatre. You've heard of plotless ballets? Well, this is a plotless musical, set in a waterfront dive and featuring Neuwirth as a has-been song-and-dancer who's looking for love in all the wrong places. At least that's what I think it's about, but don't quote me, and Roger Rees's staging is, shall we say, unspecific. Nor does Neuwirth stop the show with her shaky singing, which is tasty in smaller servings but not vocally fetching enough to hold your ear for a whole evening.
Kristin Chenoweth, on the other hand, can, will and does sing anything, as she proved by taking a week off from Broadway's "Wicked" to play Cunegonde in a semi-staged version of Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" presented by the New York Philharmonic. Her big number, "Glitter and Be Gay," is a parody of a coloratura aria crammed full of high E-flats, each of which Chenoweth picked off like a Hollywood sniper. When not warbling gorgeously, she was putting the best of all possible comic spins on her lines. With Audra McDonald devoting more and more of her onstage time to straight theater, I wouldn't hesitate to call Chenoweth Broadway's reigning diva. May she win a Tony tonight!
In a very different but no less winning vein is Jay Johnson's "The Two and Only," a one-man show playing an open-ended engagement at the Atlantic Theatre. I suppose "one-man" is a misnomer, since Johnson, formerly (and famously) of TV's "Soap," is a virtuoso ventriloquist who spends the evening reminiscing about his childhood and career in between a series of pulverizingly funny routines involving an implausible array of dummies, puppets and other presumably inanimate objects. Believe it or not, "The Two and Only" is one of the best shows in town, because it's not just funny -- it's touching, too.
In the midst of all my theater- hopping and gallery-going, I made sure to make time for New York City Ballet's long-awaited revival of George Balanchine's "Liebeslieder Walzer," a rarely seen masterpiece from 1960 that also happens to be my favorite Balanchine ballet. It's set in a candlelit ballroom where four aristocratic-looking young couples in evening dress spend an hour waltzing together, in the process revealing themselves to be romantically entangled in subtly different ways. The dancers drift outdoors into a moonlit garden as the curtain falls for a breathless moment. When it rises again, the ballroom is flooded with moonlight and the women are wearing tutus and toe shoes. "In the first act," Balanchine explained, "it's the real people that are dancing. In the second act, it's their souls."
This strongly cast revival was as good as any I've seen, and Kyra Nichols, who apparently decided to stop growing older a few seasons ago, couldn't have danced even slightly better. NYCB's ongoing celebration of the Balanchine centenary has had its ups and downers, mostly the latter, but "Liebeslieder Walzer" went a long way toward erasing memories of some of the festival's less pleasing performances. It was a night to die for -- and cry for.