THE ART OF DINING -- In the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater through January 19.

There is a thrill at the frank acknowledgement, right out on stage, of a deep and sensual passion that many people are just admitting they are possessed by and have been struggling to keep under control, at least in public.

Lust for food has been a sub-theme of many plays, and even operas, in the last few seasons. Lobsters, turkeys, great tangles of spaghetti appear on stage, exciting audiences who can hardly believe that what they are seeing is real. For actors, the trick of consuming food quickly, to clear the mouth for talk, has become an essential skill of the art. One presumes that they find compensation in not having to eat backstage cafeteria food.

"The Art of Dining" drops all pretense of the food's playing a secondary role.The food is the star, and the characters are important because of their attitudes toward it. In a nation that so recently leapt from the prefabricated hamburger to minced wonders from the Cuisanart, it's funny and instructive to watch this blatant admission of what is important.

The fine ingredients of this show are:

A restaurant in a townhouse, properly renovated with merry-go-round horses in the bay window and a steel-and-butcherblock kitchen, and called The Golden Carrousel.

A cook with principles.

Diners who recognize the best, for which we forgive them any faults, and some who fail to and are properly humiliated.

The smell of soup wafting through the Eisenhower Theater.

A menu consisting of Billi Bi or Belgian Oxtail; Veal Prince Orloff, Roast Duckling with Green Grapes or Striped Bass with Shrimp Mousse and Hollandaise; Braised Celery, Watercress Salad; and Floating Island, Pears and Cointreau in Frozen Cream, Zabaglione or Crepes Carrousel.

A wine list with Puligny-Montrachet, Pinot Chardonnay, Chateau Lascombes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes-du-Rhone, Chateau Belgrave, Chateau la Lagune, Pouilly Fuisse, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Corton-Charlemagne and Montrachet-Romany.

What's that? Is there a plot? Is it amusing? Is the acting good?

Well, no yes and yes. There is not much of a story line in Tina Howe's hour-and-a-half skit, which picks up bits of conversation and conflict in the kitchen and at each of three tables. It's a funny experience, and Suzanne Collings, as the cook, and Dianne Wiest, as a writer whose indifference to food seems to be a characteristic of hysteria, are particularly good.

But what it is, chiefly, is a wonderful orgy.