She is not short, but in her navy denim overalls she loooks it, and she is not plump, although the face is deceptively full and the cheeks pudgy, which accounts for the fact that although she is not 18, she looks that, too.

Lidsay Crouse at 29 and part way through an arduous climb of an uphill acting career, is asked therefore is she ever wishes she looked like . . . oh, say . . . Vanessa Redgrave.

"Every day of my life." The reply is swift and nonchalant. "When you're this exposed, when you're in a profession that exposes you to this extent every day - you just want to be the most gorgeous broad who ever lived."

Now she grins. In the dark you can see it - a flash of teeth that expands the face even further - as she steers a rented car up to Georgetown where she will join playwright David Mamet (whom she has just married) for dinner.

"You know," she continues thoughtfully, "they still insist on all the old things for women. They still insist you pluck your eyebrows. They still make you hollow out your cheeks when you act.

"And these are the women I'm talking about who make you do these things. I can't name names. But they get taken in by the image. Nobody ever lets you look like Dustin Hoffman when HE gets up in the morning."

But let us explain . . . Lindsay Crouse did, in fact, appear - just like Dustin Hoffman - in "All the President's Men." She also - just like Dustin Hoffman - did in fact play a newsperson (a photographer, in her case) in a movie not so very long ago. It's just that her vehicle - John Micklin Silver's "Between the Lines" - was a touchingly disorganized depiction of life on a counterculture newspaper during the '60s.

It was neither a very deft film nor a very easy part, but Lindsay Crouse managed to impart to her role a thoroughly likeable vulnerability that was common to '60s women who were plain and didn't want to be, and scared, but didn't need to be. It was a role not entirely dissimilar to the one she interpreted in "Slap-shot," where she - the lone rose among a thousand jocks - played the neglected wife. Of course.

In an era when ideological revisionism has brought us the drearily romanticized superwomen found in films like "Julia," Lindsay Crouse is more alone than ever. She is playing Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire," which opened formally last night at Arena - the ordinary woman with the extraordinary capacity for enduring and adapting. After you think about it for awhile you realize it suits her.

"We're setting it in 1953, so I've been looking through some photographs of women in the '50s." She stops and shakes her head wonderingly. "And it's just amazing how they all painted themselves with all that makeup in the '50s. It really looks medieval."

She stops again and lights up a cigarette that 'she doesn't inhale, a momentary substitute for her cigars. "Parts of 'Between the Lines' really did symbolize to me that terrible struggle we all go through. That we're still going through."

But of course none of this is new to her. She is, after all, the daughter of Russel Crouse, who in partnership with Howard Lindsay wrote some of the biggest hits on Broadway: "Arsenic and Old lace," "Life With Father," "The Sound of Musii," "Anything Goes." . . .

"My father was a very saintly person," she says gently, for he died during her first year of Radcliffe, and it was a very hard time for her. "He was a great father. Especially in the sense that he never imposed what he was doing on any of us."

The "us" here includes her older brother Timothy Crouse, who wrote "the Boys on the Bus," a well-received book on contemporary journalism.

"I never knew until I grew up - I wasn't really aware until much later - of how much my father was going through."

And yet, Edna Ferber came to the house and so did Ethel Merman.

"To me Irving Berlin was just the funny-looking guy with dark glasses. I didn't know until much later what these people meant. But I did get used to a very high level of wit."

She shrugs. She really is a most unpretentious woman, considering her background, considering her present occupation, considering the nature of most of her colleagues who remain spellbound by the drama of their own lives.

"Yes, I guess I am sane - really sane," she agrees, amused. "I'm one of the saner people in this business, and I get fed up sometimes - the thing that bothers me most in rehearsal process is if someone in the business is really neurotic. But I have observed that with actors - the more they seem to be together, the more they know themselves. Because when you're real neurotic, you just have a limp all the time, and you've always got to play with that "limp".

She chuckles to herself. "I found when I got to college I was the only person around who didn't hate my parents. Well - maybe I did for awhile - but it was just to be fashionable. My mother - I don't know what I would have done without her. She's just great. I'm just thankful to my mother for putting up with everything.

"After my first year of pounding the pavement, looking for acting jobs, my mother took me out to dinner. And I asked her, 'What's the occasion?' And she said, 'I've watched how you apply yourself, and I think you can make.'

"And that must have kept me going for about a year. Because I knew she wouldn't have said it unless she meant it."

Lindsay Crouse started out as a dancer in her home town of New York City and then moved on to acting "It all happened in stages," she muses, "and I think it happened for many reasons, none of them particularly interesting. But I did have a need to express myself. I was terribly emotional, and I didn't know where to put this intensity."

But she delivers these lines, as she does all others, without the smallest particle of intensity or emotion. In fact, when she discusses her choice of livelihood she grows down-right skittish.

"When you find the right place for yourself, it just all makes sense. I get - well, I get inarticulate talking about it. I don't know why. I guess I'm shy of it."

Nothing at first was easy for her. There was no money, few jobs. "I posed as a model for art classes."

Naked?

She giggles, "Oh, yeah. I was kind of thrilled about that." The mood turns serious. "And then I auditioned and I auditioned and I auditioned, and got a couple of jobs off-off Broadway.

"I did all the things people aren't willing to do. You know, people in acting classes sit around and say, 'There are no jobs.' But there are jobs . . ."

If you're willing to go places like Robinson, Ill., and Columbus, Ohio, to act in dinner theaters, there are jobs . .

"I hustled," she repeats, "I really hustled. I was good, and my work was honest." She addresses an invisible third party who seems to be floating off to her left: "can I say that, without sounding like I'm boasting? Yeah. I can say that.My work was honest, and I was good. It wasn't slick."

In December, she married David Mamet after a three-month courtship. Up until that point the gossip columns had paired her name with actor Robert Duvall's. Then she starred up in New Haven in "Reunion," which just happened to have been written by David Mamet.

"When you find someone who seems related, whose values are yours - well, that's really all you get in the long run anyway."

She leans forward, eyes shining. "Once you're sure of that you don't need time to seigh or judge. You just . . ." - an airy wave of the hand - "you just know-know.

"And when you're married, it better be refreshing. It better be a place of replenishment. Because the world outside . . ."

She allows her voice to trail off. She knows quite a bit about the world outside. She has to.

"Sometimes," Lindsay Crouse will say a bit later, "sometimes I just despair. I was up late one night with David, because we were watching TV. We saw this wonderful Hitchcock film ("Notorious") with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman - what's it called?

"Well, it was just so wonderfully directed, I burst into tears. I can remember saying to David, 'Those days are over. They're never going to make a good picture like that any more.'"

She reflects on that awhile. Then: "You know, sometimes when you do an interview, your words come out sounding all clunky and everything in print. So could you sort of point out the humor, too. Could you say that I smile?"

As in, " . . . she said, smiling,"?

"Yes. Like that," she says, smiling.