Only three times in 60 years has the Burns Mantle annual compilation of "Best Plays" omitted the season's Pulitzer winner. Now editor Otis Guernsey Jr. has added a fourth. And bully for him.

"Buried Child," Guernsey observes in his summation, "to us seemed a dismal, unstructured exploitation of both our malaise and our patience, describing the economic and spiritual decay of an American family in terms of fadist character poses flapping like wash on a line, in a fashionably masochistic and unbearably tedious work."

"What we need," Guernsey concludes, "in our 1980s scripts, is more attention to craft, not more emotion or flagellative insight of which we have more than plenty. We lack audience-movers, not soul-searchers, and we will neither attempt to guess why the Pulitzer people gave their 1978-79 accolade to 'Buried Child' nor follow in their footsteps by naming it among our Best Plays."

This Dodd, Mead series is important to the theater community for its comprehensive record of plays and players. Until 15 years ago its coverage was all but exclusively limited to the New York scene. Then Henry Hewes took over, expanding to a larger format and inclusion of the professional regional theater. Editor Guernsey has continued this coverage extensively, listing casts and replacements, including a highly amusing section of Hershfeld caricatures. Through cooperation of various publishers, solid excerpts of the 10 major plays catch the flavors of the whole.

Guernsey does not neglect his duties, giving Sam Shephard's play its record and a summation of its action: "Black, absurdist view of American life and family, with a murdered child among the many symbols."

Six of Guernsey's 10 excerpted plays have been seen here, five of them before their New York's openings: "First Monday in October," "On Golden Pond," "Wings," "Bedroom Farce," all of which played the Eisenhower; "Whose Life Is It Anyway," introduced at the Folger, and "Nevis Mountain Dew," which Arena Stage imported after the New York run. "Bound for the Eisenhower this spring is "The Elephant Man" and next fall the Kennedy Center Opera House will see "Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street." Surely the remaining two will find local stage: "Getting Out" and "Gimme Shelter."

For the third year the volume includes the American Theater Critics Association citation play. "Loose Ends," introduced last season at Arena Stage. The group's choice for last year was Marsha Norman's "Getting Out," introduced at the Louisville Actors' Theater.

Dodd, Mead is said to be continuing this annual report more out of pride than for profit. But the firm could sell more copies -- which, by the way, this year go to $20, up $2.05 over the past few years -- by getting them in the bookstores in time for Christmas. Buying the books in November or December is a pleasure, but buying them in January is a downright luxury.

In Hong Kong: Henry Ma will be welcoming the plane which takes off Tuesday night from Dulles. It will be carrying the Arena Stage company to the Chinese impresario's Hong Kong International Arts Festival, where Arena will present its just-ended "You Can't Take It With You" and Arthur Miller's "After the Fall."

Arena technical director Henry R. Gorfein made a six-day trek over Thanksgiving to confer with his Hong Kong opposite, Michael Outhwaite, because there is a challenge to staging the Miller drama. The Hong Kong City Hall Theater seats 500, same as the Kreeger, but has a proscenium stage. With a lot to do for the next season, "After the Fall" director Zelda Fichlander will not make the three-week trip with the company, which opens "After the Fall" here on Feb. 22.

Heading the players will be Robert Prosky, who also served as the group's spokesman on its 1978 tour of the Soviet Union with "Out Town" and "Inherit the Wind." There will be 21 performers in the group and 15 support personnel, opening the Kaufman-Hart comedy on Feb. 4 and the Miller Feb. 12. The festival also will include the National Ballet of Spain, the New Zealand Symphony, violinist Ruggerio Rici and guitarist Juan Martin. n

In Anchorage, the Alaska Repertory Theater has begun its fourth season with Lanlord Wilson's "Talley's Folly," yet to make it from Off-Broadway to Broadway, though it will shortly. Touring the stage is "Diamond Studs," with "Something's Afoot," "Sly Fox" and "Loose Ends" scheduled later for the Anchorage stage, from which "A Christmas Carol" was moved up to Fairbanks. Producing director Paul V. Brown reports that subscribers have increased by 1,000 over last season's 5,544.

Chicago's St. Nicholas Theater Company has been needing a new home and it's going to have one, taking over the Ivanhoe Theater and bar complex, most recently a nightclub. It will be converted to a 450-seat thrust theater to be ready for next fall. St. Nick's, now working in a 182-seat converted bakery, is one of Chicago's success stories. It began five years ago on a $12,000 budget. Now a staff of 40 operates five programs with a budget of nearly $1 million.

Stamford, Conn. will see the Folger's "Custer," opening Wednesday night. This is the drama by Robert E. Inham that the Capitol Hill group introduced as its first offering in the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. With Tom Blair, John McMartin, Allen Carlsen and Sandy Faison in the leading roles, the cast is basically the Folger's original under the direction of Louis W. Scheeder. Stamford's Hartman Theater, by the way, was founded and is directed by Del. Tenney and his wife, Margo Hartman, leading members of Arena Stage in its Old Vat period.

The Louisville Actors' Theater will hold its fourth annual New American Plays Festival Feb. 28 through March 23. This is where Hume Cronyn cottoned onto "The Gin Game" and where "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" had its concurrent American premiere with the Folger's version. There will be nine new plays on director Jon Jory's schedule, four for the 637-seat Pamela Brown auditorium, four for the 161-seat Victor Jory Theater, named for the director's actor-father, and a cabaret revue for the Starving Artist Bar. Besides the eight new works, there will be a group of nine short plays by writers from Australia and New Zealand to Canada, South Africa, Nigeria, England, Ireland and Scotland.

Map-hopping has become a reality for theatergoers in the coming summer's novel tours announced by Four Winds Travel, Inc., the New York-based agency.

There will be weekly departures from June 29 through Aug. 17 on both coasts for 14-day motor (bus!) tours at $1,348 per person from San Francisco to Boston.

Natural scenery will be the daytime attraction. In the evenings, the Pacific coast tour will visit San Francisco theaters, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Cannon Beach's Coaster Theater, Seattle's ACT and Victoria's McPherson Playhouse. The New England tour will jaunt to the Cape Playhouse, the Williamstown Festival, Vermont's Royall Tyler and Maine's three trail-blazers -- Lakewood, Acadia and Ogunquit.

Most of the attractions have yet to be announced, but this new idea in travel will call attention to America's burgeoning stages. Further details from Four Winds, 175 Fifth Ave., N.Y.C. 10010