It seems to I and my wife, who can sometimes be as hard-boiled as me, that these rubes is a breath of fresh air in a cynical world.

June Moon

McCarter Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ, through Oct. 5, (609) 683-8000

So Fred (Geoffrey Nauffts) is in this parlor car on this train from Schenectady to New York City, on account of his wanting to be the next great song lyricist in Tin Pan Alley, so he's heading to New York, 'cause that's where the Mecca is, and after he's made it big, in 10 years, maybe, nobody will know there was a Gershwin. And in this parlor car on this train he meets this girlie Edna (Jessica Stone), a dental assistant as wet behind the ears and as sugary-sweet as him. And they flirt, him and her. And they go all mushy on one another. And it seems to I and my wife, who can sometimes - often maybe - be as hard-boiled as me, that these rubes is a breath of fresh air in a cynical world.

And so it goes in June Moon, which that Ring Lardner fellow penned with his pal George S. Kaufman back in 1929, and which McCarter Theatre in Princeton is presenting, just like it was staged last year in New York by this director Mark Nelson for a young company called Drama Dept., on account of their wanting to maybe take it back to play in New York, where there's a broken light for every heart.

June Moon shows us the unglamorous world of the less-wet-behind-the-ears-than-Fred composers, lyricists, musicians and sheet-music publishers, most notably Paul Sears (Michael Countryman), a composer hoping that his next hit will be as big as his last, "Paprika"; Lucille (Becky Ann Baker), his impatient and long-suffering wife; Lucille's sister Eileen (Tasha Lawrence), a New York girlie who introduces Fred to fast living, night clubs, sleeping past noon and speakeasies with "pro-war" gin; and Maxie (Albert Macklin), a pianist with a wit that appears to have been sharpened on the carving knives of the Algonquin Round Table.

All this could be merely a fable of young innocence triumphing over urbane amorality. But Nelson finds in Lardner and Kaufman's satiric fairy tale a deeper, and more complex, portrait of humanity: a world where money really matters, where even hard-boiled New Yorkers have themselves only recently arrived from Stroudsburg and Shimokin, where cheating wives and seductive floozies can make a legitimate claim to our sympathy, and where even nice guys can become cads.

It helps that Nauffts and Stone are so fresh and engaging (Fred must be the first language-mangling character whom I have found, unlike Shakespeare's Dogberry or Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop, to be more winning than embarrassing); that the costumes by Jonathan C. Bixby are not only delightful but revealing of the characters' personalities and of their finances; and that the script and the songs (by Lardner) are so charming - even the deliberately bad ones.

Like "June Moon," the banal song by Fred and Paul that becomes a best-seller, June Moon proves that the simplest material can still touch the heart. June Moon has both charm and substance, like the June moon of the song, in which the shimmering crescent that catches the light lies alongside adjacent hills and valleys cast in shadow.

-Cary M. Mazer