Contrary to surface appearances, "The Nutcracker' isn't all fun and games, as weekend performances both in Washington and Baltimore revealed.

Mikhail Baryshnikov's version for American Ballet Theatre is a lot more technically challenging than it may look . This became evident when two of the company's younger male dancers assayed the role of the Nutcracker-Prince which Baryshnikov relies upon his own sinew, prowess and style to make it appear effortless in performance.

George de la Pena had his first crack at it at yesterday's matinee. The native New Yorker is an appealing dancer in many ways, combining a sunny prsence with exceptional musicality and a clean, patrician line. He had, however, considerable trouble with the part's numerous, difficult lifts, and even with the choreographic alternations he introduced. He has the potential for this and other major classical roles, certainly; but he's going to have to develop.

Fortunately, this same performance had a good deal else to recommend it - a splendid new Herr Drosselmeyer in Raymond Serrano; Marianna Tcherkassky's exemplary Clara; a much improved Harlequin from Robert La Fosse, and an uncommonly spirited, sympathetic account of Tchaikovsky's score from the orchestra, under Akira Endo's direction.

Not so fortunate was the Saturday matinee, with Clark Tippet as the Nutcracker-Prince, Leslie Browne as Clara, and Patrick Flynn conducting. Tippet made a fine impression in the role last year, but seemed short on stamina this time around. Browne, too, was out of sorts, and the whole performance lacked both warmth and rigor.

The Maryland Ballet's new version of the ballet by James Starbuck, seen at the New Mechanic Theater in Baltimore Friday night, illustrates another kind of "Nutcracker" pitfall. Neither Tchaikovsky's music nor the traditional story is impervious to mediocre choreography and lapses of artistic judgment.

Starbuck's staging follows traditional lines, more or less; it doesn't try to "reinterpret" the Petipa-Hoffman scenario. Instead, it drains it with trite choreography and camps it up with cheapjack touches like fannypinching servants.

Unfortunately, there were not many saving features about the execution, which ranged from pedestrian to graceless. Recent company shake-ups, chintzy decor, and a badly miked, substandard orchestral performance were no help.