Whenever visiting out-of-towners ask me to recommend a play, they usually have Broadway in mind. Alas, it isn't always possible for me to send them there with a clear conscience, but the good news is that I can now wholeheartedly recommend two Broadway shows, John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and William Finn's "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," both of which are guaranteed to give great pleasure without insulting the intelligence. The bad news (so to speak) is that both shows are selling out every performance. What to do?
As any Second City theatergoer in good standing will gladly tell you, the really smart plays are to be found off-Broadway, with Austin Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow" topping the list. For the past couple weeks, I've been touting Alan Ayckbourn's "Private Fears in Public Places" no less fervently. Sir Alan, as they call him on the far side of the Atlantic, is a matchlessly precise chronicler of the manifold discontents of the English middle class. Though he's incredibly prolific, we don't get to see many of his plays over here, and this one was imported by the Brits Off Broadway Festival in a production by Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre, the Yorkshire-based company he's been leading for the past quarter-century. Directed to perfection by the author, it's a quintessentially Ayckbournian piece of prestidigitation in which the lives of six melancholy Londoners are woven into a knotty daisy chain of not-so-casual acquaintance. Their meetings are shown on stage in 54 short, crisply written scenes (some of them wordless) played without intermission at just under the speed of light. Most of their comings and goings are funny -- often wildly so -- but when the dust settles and the curtain descends, you realize that what you've been seeing is a disquieting, piercingly poignant study of urban loneliness.
Once again, it's good news-bad news time: "Private Fears in Public Places" closes today at 59E59 Theaters, but rumors of a possible Broadway production have been making the rounds ever since the reviews came out. In addition, Manhattan Theatre Club is set to revive "Absurd Person Singular" in 2006, but I hope we don't have to wait that long to enjoy more of Ayckbourn's bittersweet comedy in New York.
By coincidence, the other show that gave me particular pleasure in June also has a British pedigree, though it's as American as fireworks on the Fourth. New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse is presenting a superlative revival of "Ragtime," based on the 2003 London version directed by Stafford Arima. Unlike the original Broadway production, this one eschews gazillion-dollar sets in favor of a lean, transparent presentation played on a wide-open stage. The results are unexpectedly illuminating: I, for one, simply hadn't realized how good the songs of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens were until I saw the show performed in this deceptively simple manner. Located in Millburn, N.J., Paper Mill Playhouse is off the beaten path of most Second Citians, but musical-comedy buffs are well aware of its high-quality work, and if you have a free night between now and July 17, it's well worth the trip.
Though New Yorkers aren't really snobby about New Jersey (well, yes, we are), it's true that few of us look to the Garden State as a potential source of cultural delight. Too bad for us: Not only is "Ragtime" a first-rate piece of work, but the Newark Museum is hosting an exhibition of whose similar virtues no art-loving Washingtonian will need persuading. "In the American Grain," up through Sept. 4, consists of 43 paintings and 11 photographs by Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, all drawn from the Phillips Collection and on tour while that museum has been expanding its annex building. Taken together, these pieces offer a breathtakingly vivid cross-section of early American modernism, Duncan Phillips-style. They're an indispensable part of the collective heart of the Phillips, so it's nice to be able to see them up here.
Speaking of old masters, Jack Jones just wrapped up a two-week run at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. It was his first engagement in a New York nightclub in who knows how long, and it was a stunner. Jones is the youngest of the Sinatra-style balladeers who once dominated American popular music in the '50s and early '60s, and his voice is still in staggeringly good shape for a sexagenarian (I'm still boggling at his high notes). More important, he's deepened as an interpreter since his long-ago days on the pop charts, and his repertoire includes such unabashedly sophisticated material as Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Useless Landscape," all sung with the same disarming sincerity he brings to "Wives and Lovers" and "The Impossible Dream." To hear such an artist in the intimate setting of the Oak Room is a privilege, and I wasn't the only music-loving New Yorker who availed himself of it: Tony Bennett was sitting directly across the room from me on opening night.
He looked like he was having a good time, too.
No less satisfying were Luciana Souza and Romero Lubambo, who appeared at the Jazz Standard in support of "Duos II," their gorgeous new CD of guitar-accompanied Brazilian songs. Tony Bennett didn't make it this time around, but my corner of the room was overflowing with lots of other admiring singers, among them Julia Dollison, Kate McGarry and Kendra Shank, all of whom had come to hear Souza work her usual vocal magic. I've never heard her sing a bad set, and this one was excellent even by her own exalted standards. You should have been there, but in case you weren't, "Duos II" will give you a taste-and-a-half of what you missed. Thank God for Thomas Edison -- and for New York, where we take such nightly musical miracles for granted.