Ilove to be surprised by art, and the kind of surprise I like best is when something I'm already enjoying turns out to be even better than I had first thought.

That's what happened when I saw Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow," now playing off-Broadway in an open-ended run at the Barrow Street Theatre. At first I thought it was nothing more (or less) than a coruscant, brilliant entertainment, a tour de force in which five actors portraying Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Kenneth Tynan and Joan Plowright are put on stage and turned loose like a fleet of bumper cars, sending blue sparks flying across the stage as they smash into one another. I was half right:

"Orson's Shadow" is brilliant, all right, but it's far more than mere entertainment.

The brilliance comes from the daring with which Pendleton has mixed fact and fiction. The basis for "Orson's Shadow" is drawn from life: Olivier really did hire Welles in 1960 to direct him and Plowright in Eugene Ionesco's "Rhinoceros" and fired him midway through rehearsals. Little else about their abortive encounter is known beyond the bare facts of the matter, though. That lets Pendleton's imagination run wild. The result is a witty confrontation in which two middle-aged geniuses clash noisily over the direction of an avant-garde play to put off the dread moment when they must finally confront the chaos of their own offstage lives.

The glittering surface of this production is supplied by its cast, whose members grapple, each in daringly individual ways, with the problem of impersonating a well-known actor (Jeff Still gives us the voice of young Welles playing the middle-aged Charles Foster Kane, while John Judd opts for a deliciously knowing caricature of Olivier).

But their superb performances are frosting on Pendleton's cake:

"Orson's Shadow" is a deeply thoughtful piece of writing, full of dark warnings about the dangers of early promise. After "Doubt," it's the best play in town, and worth a trip to Second City all by itself.

Alas, you can no longer see Kristin Chenoweth in City Center's semi-staged "Encores!" revival of "The Apple Tree." It's come and gone, leaving behind only the fizzy memory of her energy and charm. The show itself, which dates from 1966, is one of the lesser efforts of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, a triptych of mini-musicals about love, none much more substantial than a revue sketch. Still, it allowed Chenoweth to tear up the stage, in the process setting off enough theatrical fireworks to light up the Mall at high noon. She is our very best musical-comedy performer, bar none, and the fact that Broadway has had nothing to offer her of late except "Wicked" is too sad to bear considering. She deserves a long run in a great show, and when she finally gets it, the lines will stretch all the way from the box office to the Hudson River.

Uptown at Lincoln Center, the New York City Ballet premiered Christopher Wheeldon's latest effort, an unexpectedly flimsy dance set to George Gershwin's "An American in Paris."

Wheeldon needs no endorsement from me -- every ballet company in the world wants a dance from him, and rightly so -- but this one is long on whimsy and short on pith.

Tenuously based on a wisp of plot lifted from Gene Kelly's "American in Paris" film of 1951, it pulls out all the usual gay-Paree-ooh-la-la stops, deploying them with the self-assurance we have come to expect from the maker of "Scenes de Ballet" and "Carnival of the Animals." So what's not to like? Only the fact that nobody onstage does anything even slightly unexpected. Nice decor by Adrienne Lobel and a nifty title-role performance from Damian Woetzel, but those of us who have been following Wheeldon from the beginning of his choreographic career know he can dig deeper than this.

Nobody plays jazz on the vibraharp better than Gary Burton, and now that he has retired from teaching at Boston's Berklee School of Music, Burton is clearly having a ball out on the road with his new working group, a quintet featuring the teenage guitar whiz Julian Lage. They played a shakedown gig in Manhattan last spring, and then came back to town a year later for a week at Birdland. The difference between the two engagements was impossible to miss: The first was promising, the second awe-inspiring. It has been years since Burton led a more exciting lineup of players, and his own solos left little doubt that he was as thrilled as everyone else in the room.

Dena DeRose, long one of my favorite singer-pianists, has also been on the road, in her case with bassist Martin Wind and drummer Matt Wilson, who together comprise one of the hottest rhythm sections in New York.

When she returned to New York for a short run at the Jazz Standard to pitch her new CD, "A Walk in the Park," you could hear how pleased she was to be working with Wind and Wilson. I heard something else, too: I've always loved DeRose's laconic, rueful singing, but she has acquired a new degree of confidence and depth since I last heard her perform.

She used to be a pianist who sang really, really well. Now she's a singer who plays piano really, really well.

I didn't see very much art in May, but "Edward Hopper: The Capezzera Drawings," which just closed at the Peter Findlay Gallery on 57th Street, was all I needed to keep me happy. An exhibition of 22 mostly unknown charcoal-on-paper studies for some of Hopper's most important late paintings, including "Excursion Into Philosophy," "Office in a Small City" and "A Woman in the Sun," it gave us a privileged glimpse of the artist in his workshop.

Once again, a commercial art gallery has done what a major museum ought to be doing, hanging Hopper's drawings in a spacious, properly lighted environment that gave them plenty of room to register properly.

I expect what I saw there to stay in my mind for a very long time.

John Judd, left, Jeff Still and Susan Bennett as stage greats in "Shadow."