Daniel Okrent
November 05, 1999 AT 05:00 AM EST

No singer is more literate than Mary Cleere Haran; no litterateur is nearly so musical. And for the past couple years, this paragon of cabaret style and substance has been proving she’s a terrific pop-culture archaeologist, too. If you want to know the 1920s, then trash the numbingly predictable century-celebrating magazines and books stacked on your coffee table and instead give yourself over to the 80 minutes that comprise her current nightclub show, Crazy Rhythm: Manhattan in the Twenties.

The Oak Room in Manhattan’s Algonquin Hotel — where the aura, the menu, and even the waiters haven’t changed since Eleanor Roosevelt was a chorus girl — makes the ideal setting for Haran, who’ll be performing there most Sundays and Mondays through the end of the year, as well as on New Year’s Eve. More than a mere musical archivist, Haran uses her liquid alto and her great acting ability to create the feel of a jazz-age nightclub. Just as her wonderful ’30s show (available on the Angel CD Pennies From Heaven) lets you hear old songs in new ways, Haran’s witty commentary and spot-on characterizations of ’20s figures in Crazy Rhythm enable a flimsy novelty like Irving Berlin’s ”Monkey Doodle Doo” to acquire something almost resembling meaning: In the age that Haran so convincingly evokes, this sort of desperate silliness was nearly an ideology. This same fidelity to context turns a better song, like the Rodgers and Hart rarity ”A Tree in the Park,” into a perfect jewel.

Did I mention that Haran’s a terrific comedian? Or that she’s a pleasure to look at? This is a woman, and an act, for people of taste, judgment, worldliness, and style. And if you think I’m trying to flatter you into going, you’re absolutely right. A

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