THE ART OF DINING by Tina Howe; directed by A. J. Antoon; scenery by David Jenkins; costumes by Hilary Rosenfeld; lighting by Ian Calderon; hair and make by J. Roy Helland.

With Kathy Bates, Brenda Curran, Suzanne Collins, Robert Gerringer, George Guidall, Jane Hoffman, Jacklyn Maddux, Ron Rifkin, Margaret Whiton and Dianne Wiest.

At the Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 19.

Food and conversation: What boldly commonplace subject matter!

Food can drive us apart or draw us together. It can be the healing ritual at the end of an aggravating day, or the third corner in a tense romantic triangle.

Using a small gourmet restaurant for a setting and its proprietors and customers for characters, Tina Howe, whose play "The Art of Dining" opened at the Kennedy Center last night, has worked some inspired and extremely funny variations on the theme. She has also taken some of her own best ideas and run them aground through repetition. She has created a comic vehicle that races merrily forward for long, happy stretches and then, suddenly, begs to be recalled for a defective steering mechanism.

This is the first joint production of the Kennedy Center and the New York Shakespeare Festival and, whatever its weaknesses, it augurs well for the partnership. The idea and many of the things Howe has done with it are inspired. So are the direction by A. J. Antoon, the set by David Jenkins and the performance, in a small strange and wonderful role, of an actress named Dianne Wiest.

Before Wiest's cockeyed entrance as a pathologically shy young short-story writer, we are introduced to Cal and Ellen, the owners and entire staff of the Golden Carousel restaurant. Maitre d' Cal's first worry is paying off the $75,000 loan that got them started (which means packing in as many customers a night as possible). Chef Ellen's maintaining the quality of the food (which means somehow preventing him from stuffing all the ingredients down his throat).

Ellen's passion for food is such that she not only talks about it but to it.

"You don't even know you're a fish, do you?" she asks a bass she is about to place in the oven. When the bass fails to respond, she reassures him, or her, ever-so-sweetly: "We do. And we know how good you taste." (The bass, according to sources close to it, is actually played by a bluefish, but a bluefish that, I am pleased to report, is thoroughly believable in the role.)

Ron Rifkin and Suzanne Collins, who play Cal and Ellen, do well by the early, rhapsodic phase of their relationship but are less convincing when things start turning sour -- When, for example, Cal drinks up most of a pot of hollandaise sauce ("like an animal!" she screams), and Ellen pours the rest on the floor, pushes him down there with it and orders him to lick it up.

Howe, Antoon and their cohorts have done their homework -- the food preparation has the look of the real thing, including some slick chopping maneuvers on Rifkin's part, slicing up a bunch of mushrooms with gatling-gun speed. But the author, like her characters, sometimes gets so wrapped up in foods and foodstuffs that she loses all discipline. More than once, the dialogue gets stalled in long lists of spices, wines and sauces, and Cal, in one passage, actually confuses the tastes of salt and nutmeg.

While Cal and Ellen are frantically preparing for a night's business, the first customers -- a sensual middleaged couple named Paul and Hannah -- are going into paroxysms of ecstasy before they have had even a glimpse of food. The menu alone has Hannah crying. "Help me! Oh Paul" and Paul replying, "Take your time," and Hannah explaining, "I can't. I'm scared."

Jane Hoffman and Robert Gerringer are splendidly intense as this dizzy pair, but in their case it is the author who fails them as the play moves on. Their characters are not so much developed as run ragged.

At a second table, meanwhile (we switch periodically back and forth among the characters, with help from the lighting crew), a threesome of women has assembled for a birthday dinner. They chatter at length -- and to no particular purpose -- about wines and diets and who ordered which dish. But by then the interest of the play has already centered irrevocably on the third table.

It is hard to say just where the brillances of Wiest, who plays the author at that table, leaves off and where the brilliance of Howe, who put her on paper, begins -- and that's as it should be. Between them, however, they have created a wrenching, immensely funny picture of a woman veering wildly back and forth between awkward introspection and energetic bursts of autobiographical oratory.

One moment, Wiet is spilling her soup on the floor and recoiling in embarrassment if anyone tries to help clean her dress. The next, she is telling of her parents' eating habits: "My father bolted his food. My mother played with hers, sculpting it up into little hills and then smashing it down." Still later, laughing convulsively, she recalls how her mother would "throw herself face down in our gravel driveway and beg my father to put the car into reverse and drive over her . . . It was a ritual we'd go through every night.

"I really shouldn't laugh," she apologizes.

As Paul, the publisher she is meeting for the first time, Robert Gerringer is a marvelously befuddled foil for Wiest's neuroses.We could follow these two characters forever -- or for quite a while, anyway.

Alas, we don't.