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Reba McEntire stars in the Broadway musical "Annie Get Your Gun"

January and February are the slow months for Broadway theater, but that can't entirely explain the critical raptures that have greeted Edward Albee's latest work, "The Play About the Baby." Albee hasn't written a good play in decades, but somehow he's managed to work himself back into the good graces of the New York reviewers, who periodically get very protective of once-great playwrights down on their luck. Still, it's hard for me to imagine any real people — i.e., those who don't have to write about theater for a living — coming away from this lame, irritating work with anything at all except a headache.

Four people appear onstage: a young couple and an older couple. Their names are Boy, Girl, Man and Woman, so we know we're in the land of symbolic profundities. The young couple announce cutely that they are having a baby, go offstage and return in seconds with their new bundle of joy. The older couple then arrive, and, after quite a bit of gab, steal the baby and proceed to convince the younger pair that the infant never existed. These kinds of mysterious mind games, of course, are old hat to anyone who has been paying attention to Pinter, Mamet or even Albee in his better days. But here's it's especially facile and inauthentic: The "power" this older couple has over the younger seems to be entirely manufactured by the playwright (could anyone but an old man have written this play?) rather than growing out of any psychological truth or reality.

Theater vets Brian Murray and Marian Seldes, as the older couple, are fine stage performers, and their antics may be enough to convince some people they've had an actual evening of theater. But Albee throws in gimmick after desperate gimmick. The young couple run across the stage naked. The older pair break into incongruous vaudeville routines. At the start of Act II, Murray chides the audience for coming in late and replays the last five minutes of Act I. (It's no better the second time.) He even mimics a female theatergoer complaining that the line for the ladies' room is too long. Odd, since at the off-Broadway theater where "The Play About the Baby" is running, the ladies' room was surprisingly uncrowded; it was the men's room line that snaked through the lobby. Albee even got that wrong.

If you're looking for fresh ideas in theater, I'd suggest forgetting Albee and traveling a few blocks uptown, to see Reba McEntire in the Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun." Sure, this Irving Berlin classic is about as mainstream as theater gets (though Graciela Daniele's tasteful update, which originally starred Bernadette Peters, goes a long way to neutralizing the politically incorrect treatment of Indians). But a country singer playing Annie Oakley? It's a notion so obvious and unexpected that it has the shock of the revolutionary. The real shock, though, is how well Reba pulls it off.

Where Merman was brassy and Peters cutesy, Reba is just doin' what comes naturally. She has an easy stage presence, a winning comic flair, and when she says she "cain't get a man with a gun," you know she didn't have to rehearse the accent. Best of all, she gives the great score a fresh, country-flavored reworking, lacing songs like "Lost in His Arms" and "Moonshine Lullaby" with quavers and curlicues and a hearty, maple-syrup sweetness that would have brought tears to the eyes of Berlin himself. As it did to mine.