ONE OF the best-kept secrets in Detroit and St. Louis is that Davey Marlin-Jones lives in Washington.

This will come as no surprise to those who sit spellbound (and occasionally aghast) through his eccentric presentations as WDVM-TV's theater and film critic. Nor to those who recall his seven years (from 1965 to 1972) at the artistic helm of the Washington Theater Club. Nor to his neighbors at the Woodner Apartments on 16th Street.

But the people of those other metropolishes have the funny idea he lives there.

In St. Louis, they think so for the perfectly sound reason that Marlin-Jones has been the consulting director of the Loretto-Hilton Repertory Theater for the last eight years, and, during the season that just ended, directed Eugene O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh" and Harold Pinter's "Old Times."

In Detroit, they have the same impression mainly because of his appearances, several nights a week, as WDID-TV's arts critic. And they know him as a director, too, going back all the way to the early 1950s.

Although less widespread, a similar delusion afflicts residents of such far-flung communities as West Springfield, Mass. (where, among many directorial appearances, he staged Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge" this spring), and Middletown, Va. (where he did two plays last year and where his rendering of Tennessee Williams' "A Streetcar Named Desire" continues at the Wayside Theatre through next weekend.)

Despite the weight of all this circumstantial evidence, however, Marlin-Jones is not a clone. He has achieved the miracle of omnipresence through a simple combination of videotape and a set of work habits apparently modeled on Charlie Chaplin's in "Modern Times."

In the most recent year of his life, besides the achievements mentioned above, he has found time to pursue a modest career on the lecture circuit, to review plays and movies for WASH - FM (with a San Francisco syndication, too), to serve as the American College Theater Festival's National Critic, and - perhaps his proudest accomplishment - to see his 12- and 8-year-old sons "practically every single day I'm in Washington." (Another, not-so-proud accomplishment was his separation, after 15 years of marriage, from his wife Mary, an arts librarian at the Martin Luther King Library downtown.)

Once you have seen Davey Marlin-Jones in person, his astonishing rate and range of activities begin to seem less inexplicable. For even slouched on a piece of "This End Up"-style livingroom furniture, he is the same manic student of theater and life as in his urgent "Look-what-I-learned-in-school-today!" TV appearances.

Changing postures every other sentence and gesturing wildly when his fingers aren't running through an Edgar Allen Poe head of hair, Marlin-Jones can rhapsodize about thbe down-home lyricism of everyday Americans (the folks celebrated in the plays he most loves to direct, like "Streetcar"), about the stage-deisgning genius of the painter Adolph Appia (who designed for Wagner), about the theatergoer's need to "reach out" with his "mind and belly," and about theater as "a verb, a doing, a moving, a tunnel that we the audience get to peek in on."

He is a man who loves actors, especially American actors for that "klutzy, special thing that is different from what Sir Laurence has to offer.... All one has to do is watch Sir Laurence play Big Daddy [in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof"] and it's just awful. Because he has no concept of what dirt under a fingernail does to a hand even after you have a manicure."

By contrast, Marlin-Jones can reach a quick crescendo of oratorical ecstasy over Jimmy Stewart as Carbine Williams having "a sexual relationship with a repeating rifle."

Drama in Middletown

Marlin-Jones' strongly personal view of theater - crawling with metaphors from the world of music - is very much in evidence right now on the stage of the Wayside Theater in Middledown, a gas-guzzling but worthwhile 100 minutes from downtown Washington.

With its rolling green hills, its narrow roads, its white frame houses and the startling lack of sulfur dioxide in the air, Middletown is the last place you would expect to hear the feverish New Orleans heat of "Streetcar." But working in a converted movie theater (wi so little backstage space that actors have to go outside for offstage crosses), Marlin-Jones and his 14-member company have created a surprisingly tense, melodious and riveting production.

He is proud, he says, of having pumped life into moments that he feels were buried in the Elia Kazan stage and movie versions - for example, Blanche's touching claim, long after her drinking habits have been thoroughly exposed, that she has no idea what "Southern Comfort" might be. "Why, it's a liqueur!" she decides after a hesitant taste.

Beyond the specific touches that make the production effective, the mere use of three fairly life-sized, ordinary-looking actors, and the strong, sisterly resemblance of Margaret Winn as Blanche and Lisa McMillan as Stella throw flashes of new light onto this much-produced work.

Marlin-Jones also has done things with the play, scenically and sonically, that were probably never contemplated by the author. He has commissioned an original piano score, for instance, that is far louder and more varied than what Williams prescribed. And the walls of the Kowalskis' apartment are represented by evocative but thoroughly abstract curtains, with purple, Roschach-like patterns, which fall into place during an elaborate "street medley" at the play's start and are finally ripped away by Blanche in her climactic anguish.

The director takes the position that he has "expanded on," not "departed from" the author's intent. In any case, his minute knowledge of and love for the play are obvious. (And how many directors, if they truly love the plays they agree to direct, succeed in making it obvious?)

Born to Preach

Marlin-Jones was born in the town of Winchester, Inc., 47 years ago. "Born to be a preacher - could never figure out what to preach," he says. His parents were Quakers. His father, half-Cherokee, had left school in the third grade but made a successful career for himself as a labor organizer and a consulting industrial engineer. "My father's energy level makes me look like Perry Como," said Marlin-Jones (whose hyphenated name was taken because, he explains, another member of Actors Equity already had staked out the name Davey Jones).

Show business first reared its seductive head when, at about age 8, "I saw a magician with an empty bowl who took a napkin and put it over the bowl, whisked it away - this was in a movie house in Muncie, Ind. - and that bowl was filled with oranges. He threw the oranges out to the audience. And I knew from that moment I wanted to spend my life throwing oranges."

At 13, he went on tour as a magician, with his father "stooging" for him, and worked 40 of the then-48 states on bills with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and the like.

"I always tell the world I did a comedy magic act," says Marlin-Jones. "I didn't plan it that way. I was a serious magician, but I had no mechanical aptitude.I would buy tricks that would say, "A child of 10 can master this in 30 minutes' and it would take me three eight-hour days...."

At 18, he went to Antioch College "with the idea of acquiring enough polish with the magic act that I could do it ofr the rest of my life." Instead, he fell in love with the theater, wrote and directed nine original plays, acted with a local Shakespearean repertory company and began his TV career, first in Dayton and later - driving 112 miles a day from school - in Columbus as "Captain Davey Jones, Skipper of the Good Ship Columbus," a role that came complete with a giraffe for co-star.

At 22, he moved to Detroit and went to work for an advertising agency by day, while starting to direct by night. Then he was named a vice president at the agency - a steady, secure prospect that, he says, scared him out of his wits. So after a month (and after a successful "semi-professional" production of an original play called "The Adventures of Punk and Charley"), he quit and headed for New York.

He has allowed himself only one period of sustained depression in his life, he says. That was when he arrived in Greenwich Village, took a $40-a-month apartment with a brick wall so porous "it literally snowed through the brick," and couldn't find any work. But after several months of solitude and "modified starvation," he was "dragged out of his funk" by friends, and apparently never again gave gloom a chance to climb onto his agenda.

His next directing sting was on the upstate New York "Borscht Circuit," where, he says, "in the middle of a big dramatic moment, the p.a. system would open up and say, "Mah-jongg is now available in the east wing!" So unless you were more interesting than mah-jongg you were unemployed. It taught me a whole new kind of concentration."

From 1962 until '65, he was the managing director of New York's Equity Library Theater, a showcase for young actors and playwrights.

Then he came to Washington to run the brand new, 145-seat Washington Theater Club, launched with money from the Philip M. Stern family and originally located at 1632 O St. NW, (The building, owned by the First Baptist Church, now houses the Paul Robeson Theater, while the Washington Theater Club's subsequent home, at 23rd and L Streets NW, is now the West End Circle movie theater.)

Marlin-Jones remains proud of his career at the Washington Theater Club, he says, especially the season when the theater won the Margo Jones Award (for encouragement of new playwrights) and did six of the 24 original plays produced by resident theaters nationwide.

"It was for a brief time a dream that was really really working," he says. He quit in 1972 (becayse "the company, the people that carried us, were literally getting fat," he says), and the theater club itself went out of business two years later.

His career as a critic on what was then the WTOP-TV evening news got launched 10 years ago to supplement his theater club income. "At that point they had a priest doing the drama cirticism and (producer) Jim Snyder was unhappy with the way things were going," he says.

Snyder, he adds, had the good sense "to trust that which looked funny on the medium.... He assembled a whole bunch of people who didn't look as if they came out of a spray can." But Marlin-Jones insists his own oddball manner, which occasionally has viewers worried he has contracted some exotic nervous disease, is not a contrivance. "People say, "Where did you develop that off-the-wall style?"" he says. "I don't know. To me, it's slice-of-life."

After 13 years of attending, reviewing and directing plays here (including one Marlin-Jones-directed production at the Kennedy Center, Samuel Taylor's "Perfect Pitch" with Tammy Grimes and Jean-Pierre Aumont, in 1973), he has decided that the Washington theater audience represents a radical assortment of backgrounds and degrees of sophistication. This means Washington theatergoers will "always disagree," he says, which is good. But it also tends to encourage local producers to be overcautious about their choice of plays - to look for the common denominator. "I don't think our theater questions us often enough," he says.

He means, however, to get back to the business of doing something about it. Although eh wont" name any names, Marlin-Jones says cryptically that "There's something in terms of my soul that's very big where I'll be able to work with new writers again and stay in Washington." CAPTION: Picture 1, Theater is "a verb, a doing, a moving, a tunnel that we the audience get to peek in on." By Vanessa Barnes - The Washington Post; Picture 2, no caption