One musical theatre institution, The Fantasticks, has just closed off-Broadway after a run of 17,162 performances and over 41 years. That's not quite the record clocked up by The Mousetrap over here, but it is nearly double the length of the run of Cats by the time that show closes in May. Meanwhile, however, another Manhattan musical theatre institution - the incomparable Elaine Stritch - outstrips and outclasses them all. She is happily still going strong, at 76 going on 77 (her birthday is 2 February 1925).

A Phenomenal Phenomenon

Last November, this phenomenal phenomenon took downtown's Public Theatre by storm with a one-woman retrospective of her life and career, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in a production that is now set to transfer to Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre from 6 February. (She is scheduled to run to the end of May). The plain facts of the matter are that you should book your ticket and your flight now.

I recently caught one of Stritch's final performances at the Public, and for once, all the hype I'd heard turned out to be true. Actually, the show is more about truth than hype; and the revelatory personal journey this performer takes her audiences on is spellbinding for both its intensity and honesty. She doesn't spare herself, or us, with her brutal self-assessments; but even more pertinently and poignantly, with her absolutely unique experiences from a remarkable career.

A famously irascible, difficult talent that added lustre to everything from Sondheim musicals to Simon comedies, and from Albee plays to Allen movies, Stritch is both the essence of Manhattan and a force of nature. As she holds forth on a bare stage for nearly three hours - "an existential problem in tights", she calls herself - we are held fascinated, and just occasionally appalled, by the personality and stories she projects. She may be in her (anec)dotage, but the talent blazes as fiercely as it ever did. Has a performer ever earned the right to perform Sondheim's "I'm Still Here" with such total conviction? I doubt it.

No Longer Here

I also caught the final performances of a couple of shows you've now missed. A revival of Clare Booth Luce's catty comedy The Women, indulgently directed by Scott Elliott for the Roundabout Theatre Company, was a must-see for the star-struck. Not for many a year have I seen so many wonderful New York actresses in one place. Some of them you'll have heard of from the movies or their television roles, but in fact almost all are returnees to the New York stage from where they began.

Once again, the importance of the theatre to act as training ground for other industries is conclusively demonstrated. But for this brief season that ran from October to January, it was indeed terrific to have Sex and the City's Miranda, Cynthia Nixon and former Golden Girl Rue McClanahan, back on stage. (Meanwhile another former Golden Girl and Broadway veteran, Bea Arthur, is also about to return to the Broadway stage of the Booth Theatre with her own one-woman show; it runs from 29 Jan to 10 Mar).

Jennifer Tilly, Oscar-nominee for Bullets over Broadway, was another returning theatre actress in the production, as was the always brilliant Mary Louise Wilson (whose portrayal of Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop, brought to Hampstead Theatre, remains one of my favourite theatre experiences of the past few years). But it was Jennifer Coolidge - who stole last year's movie, Best in Show - who walked away with the show here, too.

Despite the casting, The Women was not a great evening's theatre; but I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Sometimes when you go to the theatre, you just want to ogle. And here, you got more than you even bargained for, when Jennifer Tilly emerged, completely naked, from a bath.

Instant Nostalgia

A combination of star power and the instant nostalgia of seeing a lively part of my personal definition of New York on stage drew me to 45 Seconds from Broadway. This new play by Neil Simon was relabelled "45 Seconds on Broadway" by some wags, referring to the length of the run it actually enjoyed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. While Simon comedies have indeed been a Broadway staple for longer than I've been alive, that isn't the nostalgia I'm referring to, but rather the setting for this one.

On 47th Street - 45 seconds west of Broadway heading towards 8th Avenue - you come upon the Edison Hotel, and located within it, one of New York's liveliest theatrical hangouts. It's the Edison Coffee Shop - universally known as the Polish Tea Room - where Broadway folk routinely grab their burgers and borscht, en route to perform in or see a matinee. August Wilson has written some of his plays here; but when I heard that Simon had set his latest one here, I had to see it. Unfortunately, however, he failed to actually write it; the result is that we have 12 characters searching for a play.

Grande Dame

But when Marian Seldes - one of the grande dames of the American legitimate stage - plays one of those characters, who can complain? Certainly not me. Nor would I have missed the warm thrill of recognition when the curtain went up on John Lee Beatty's beautiful recreation of the restaurant's front room.

Finally, I caught an anodyne new musical, Summer of 42, at off-Broadway's Variety Arts. Harmless but uninspiring, it, too, has only had a brief run.

Not much longer than my own trip. My weekend jaunt saw me arriving in Manhattan late on Friday and departing just three nights later. Isn't it exciting, though, that New York is as accessible as this? With my flight only costing £177 including taxes, it's as cheap as hopping over to Europe.