STWE'RE SURROUNDED by comedy these days. It dominates the TV ratings. Stereo systems, concert halls and playhouses are filled with the sound of laughter. Even the movies have been cracking more smiles lately.

The trendy magazine New Times recently devoted most of a double issue to comedy, with one article titled "Comedy Is the New Rock." Never let it be said that the hip people of the '70s were humorless. Cynicism breeds comedy. The time is right for laughing in the streets.

But seriously, folks - as "Comedians," the provocative play by Trevor Griffiths which opens at Arena Stage Wednesday, wants to know - what does all that mirth achieve?

"Comedians" takes us to a night-school class for would-be comics in a dreary section of working-class England, then to the club where the class members perform as a graduation exercise, then back to the classroom for a post-mortem. The class is taught by a former comic who has stopped laughing, and the students' acts are judged by another former comic who has turned talent scout.

These two veterans offer the class diametrically opposed comic gospels. Comedy should poke and prod and challenge and change our lives, says the teacher ("we work through laughter, not for it...we've got to make people laugh till they cry"). No way, says the agent. If you want to make the big time, you've got to stroke your audience ("we're not missionaries, we're suppliers of laughter"). Give them a good show, and leave it at that.

Torn between such conflicting advice, the students twist and turn. Some of them settle into familiar comic grooves. But one of them takes his (See COMEDIANS, M2, Col. 1) (COMEDIANS, From M1) teacher's advice so far that even the teacher is shocked.

There is little doubt where playwright Griffiths stands. He's a committed radical from the Manchester working class himself, and here's the way he talked in an interview last year.

"What I would argue for is a tradition of stand-up comedy which told the truth about people, about their situations, and what hurts, and what's hard. Some comedians have done that. They have not moved into escape. They have stayed with their class, and have talked about their class experience in an unnostalgic way. And they have said to people, 'What keeps you going, what holds you together, is your ability to see this as funny as well as painful.'"

But "Comedians" itself does not put the case so starkly. At least in the production Mike Nichols directed on Broadway last season, "Comedians" was richly ambiguous. Jonathan Pryce won a Tony for his portrait of the young iconoclastic comic - a role he created in the British original - but this lad was no proletarian saint. His comedy was menacing, even thrilling, sometimes incomprehensible and not very funny. SOme of his more conventional classmates were funnier, more congenial characters - particularly the Irish comedian played by Jariath Conroy (who just played a comic of a different sort - Barnet the emcee orderly - in "The National Health" at Arena).

The ending of "Comedians" suggests that radical comics - in this case, both the teacher and his star pupil - cannot let themselves drown in despair, or the audience will go home. On the evidence of "Comedians," Griffiths is a populist writer in the best sense. His audience's affections are exercised almost as much as their minds and their laughing muscles. The best comics - and Griffiths, too - do not insult us by toadying to our prejudices, but neither do they insult us by literally insulting us. We're all in this together.

The play is studded with names of English comics, most of whom are unknown here. In one crucial line, the slick agent holds up the name of "Max Bygraves" as the standard to which all comics should aspire. Here, as on Broadway, the name will be changed to "Bob Hope" (not a completely alien choice - Hope was born in England). Generally, though, the names remain the same. A program note explains how the "workingmen's club" milieu of the play is a far cry from the comedy clubs in the United States, such as the chic Catch a Rising Star in New York (however, one suspects that the atmosphere on Friday nights at El Brookman's here in Washington is closer to the British mark).

No matter how much the milieu may differ from the clubs and concert halls of America - or from the American bedrooms where the "Tonight" show introduces many of our comics to a national audience - the comedians of "Comedians" nevertheless seem remarkably familiar. It's not hard to think of American parallels.

Mick Connor is a boyish, clever ethnic comic on the order of the late Freddie Prinze. Ethnic jokes are seldom funny unless they're among friends, when that element of "we're all in this together" is maintained. The Irish jokes that dominate two of the "Comedians" routines are told by Irish characters. It can be assumed, however, that the club audience in the play - though never explicitly represented - is not likely to think highly of the Irish. Watching New York's Mick tell his Irish jokes in such a context reminded me of watching Prinze do his Puerto Rican routines at Shady Grove several years ago. It's easy to laugh at an ethnic when it's invisible, but it produces uneasy afterthoughts if you think about it.

Sammy Samuels is a more desperate practitioner of the ethnic zhtik, slinging his Jewishness around in all directions. He rapidly exhausts the topic and moves on to other subjects such as the Irish, Pakistanis and women, particularly his wretched wife. The English workingmen's clubs are usually all-male, though women are admitted as guests for special occasions, and Samuels takes full advantage of that. Joe Palmieri, who will play Sammy here, says that as he rehearses the role, he thinks of all the comedians he can't stand. Pressed to name names, he suggests Don Rickles. But at least Rickles has the courtesy to attack his targets face-to-face.

Ged and Phil Murray are brothers and partners in comedy, though it's increasingly obvious they don't get along personally or professionally. Asked to think of American parallels for their art, Arena's actors propose that it's not far from Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and not much farther from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. They are the play's only representatives of the world of crazy comedy - a comedy removed from social context. Griffiths doesn't have much use for this type of comedy, and the Murrays botch their debut miserably. But their kind of comedy is vastly popular. Ask Laverne and Shirley, Abbott and Castello, Steve Martin.

George McBrain does a filthier version of Mick Connor's act. Irish stew, heavy on the sex. We can only hope that Mick Connor doesn't grow into such a dirty old man. Mark Hammer, Arena's McBrain, compares his character to Jack E. Leonard.

Finally, there's Gethin Price, the rebel. Price wears his originality like a medal of honor, and in a way it is. None of his classmates put themselves on the line as he does in his act, and this quality of self-exposure required in comedians is one of the most admirable traits onstage (and sometimes one of their most annoying traits offstage). To describe Price's act in much detail would be to spoil it for Arena audiences, but it's safe to say that the man does not tell jokes. Nor does he create characterizations of any hilarity of profundity in the manner of a Tomlin, a Pryor, an Andy Kaufman. Nor is he strictly a mime. But Price uses a few comic tools to create intense, angry images. He takes comedy as seriously as it can be taken, and he dares his audiences to do the same.

In a sense, he challenges his old teacher to practice what he preaches. His teacher recognizes shades of his own uncompromising youth in Price, but he is not swept with nostalgia at the sight. In fact, he is repelled. The play ends with a hint that the old man might be ready for a form of compromise; not a capitulation to the commercial marksmanship of the agent, but rather a willingness to get back in touch with human beings, with the real people on the other side of the footlights.

At one point in the text, price says he doesn't want to be "like Chaplin, all coy and covered in kids." This character is fooling himself. On Broadway, there were elements of his own act that were almost Chaplinesque. And as the obituaries last month pointed out, Chaplin was not always coy and covered in kids. He came from an English childhood that was probably tougher than anything Price could imagine. As his life went on, his films became tougher. Indeed, Chaplin would seem to be an embodiment of the Griffiths ideal - the lower-class comic who never seemed to shed his class even in the world, the embittered expatriate rejected by the establishment despite his money and fame.

The death of an inactive Chaplin may not seem so significant in an era in which comedy assaults us from all sides. But unintentionally, Arena will be giving us a eulogy to the man. "Comedians" gives us a glimpse of the best and the worst possibilities currently available in Chaplin's country within his craft, and it's not hard to project that view across the ocean to our own comedy. After leaving the theater, we might search our laugh tracks and measure what we've lost.