Where has everybody gone?

At its finest, drama creates characters who stimulate us with recognizable humanity, passions and frailities that we can perceive within ourselves.We may be ennobled or dismayed by these reflections of our human condition, but they register.

A minor but telling test of fine plays is to imagine what the characters are doing when not on stage. During a recent spate of playgoing here and in New York, I've been asking myself: "Where has everybody gone?"

Take three new dramas by playwrights considered among today's finest, "Clothes for a Summer Hotel," by Tennessee Williams; "The Lady From Dubuque," by Edward Ablee; and "Betrayal," by Harold Pinter. Beyond the production flaws, their characters are bloodless and manipulated, looked on with some contempt by their creators. Why should we be interested in these people? Into what void do they disappear when they're off stage?

"Clothes for a Summer Hotel" is Wiliams' musing about the lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, surely the most overcooked of American literati. Some scenes have the true Williams poetic flame, but he has been sidetracked seriously by his now-boring nemesis: the male animal who rouses inconvenient lust.

I'm assured that there is now less of the character of the aviator than at the play's premature premiere and that with another month to go in Chicago before New York, the author -- and director Jose Quintero -- hope to get to the play's core.

Surely Williams did not intend Zelda's passing passion for the aviator to dominate his play. The most potentially valuable aspect of it is his imagined confrontation between Scott and Ernest Hemingway. Here is a timeless element of drama: jealousy. Williams hints of deeper conflicts between these two than the notorious envy of any writer for another. But by the time the confrontation scene arrives, we've been surfeited by Zelda and her flier and the scene has not been adequately prepared. One longed for Williams to re-write his play from scratch. Instead, through this too-soon production we have a well-worn retread of those tiresome Fitzgeralds.

In "The Lady From Dubuque," on which Albee is reported to have been working for five years, we meet three couples gathered for a Saturday night of drinking and games. Does this recall "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" One of the wives is dying and lashes out bitterly at her guests. At the end of Act I a mysterious couple arrives, an elegant white lady of uncertain age, Irene Worth, and a courteous black gentleman, Earl Hyman. In Act II she will confuse all by claiming to be the dying woman's mother, though her son-in-law-elect knows she is not.

Albee does not want the mysterious couple to be thought of as angels of death, but these are the roles they serve.

Not by the furthest sufferance can one accept any link among these six people. In their overly similar ways all are nasty insufferables and one cannot imagine what they do, how they exist, when they are not in Rouben Ter-Arutunian's lifeless, abstract room. For all three couples Albee has undisguised contempt. In fact, for two of the women he uses a genial stupidity, forcing two actresses, Celia Westoon and Maureen Anderman, confusedly to differentiate like characteristics.

In "Betrayal," England's Pinter presents a wife, her husband and her lover, a close friend of both. To his equivocal lines, punctuated by pauses during which we may ponder variable meanings, Pinter adds the novelty of tracing the affair backwards, from 1977 to 1968. This detective-story device leads to an easily predictable start of the affair and suggests that still another amour is on the way. Though two waiters are included, at least five characters are left in limbo, the lover's unseen wife and the two children of each marriage. What we get are three ego-consumed, sophomoric adults of very little interest and vague off-stage habits. The wife, I imagined, spends all her time reading novels and eating chocolates -- though why she hadn't blown up like a balloon at the start of the play and then gradually reduced eluded me.

I suspect that "Betrayal" is a comedy but both Raul Julia and Roy Scheider play the men as serious-minded expatriates adding confusion to the staging -- necessitated, I presume, by Equity's strictures against foreign actors. Standing in for the ailing Blythe Danner at my performance was Caroline Lagerfelt, and she was excellent. In the most defined role of the three, Lagerfelt hit it on the button. But lacking the perhaps saving grace of vocal chic, "Betrayal" is airless, pretentious chatter.

Far the most arresting of New York's new plays is "Bent," initially produced in London by an American, Martin Sherman. Because its two acts are stylistic opposites, "Bent" seems to be two different plays.

The start is dynamic, even superbly melodramatic. Max, a homosexual Berliner, and his lover are caught by the Nazis. Sherman will pose basic questions. When it comes to survival, Max will prefer to wear the yellow star of David rather than the pink patch of homosexuality and to survive he disowns his lover. But through the seasons in a concentration camp, will Max disown his philosophy that sex has nothing to do with love? During the performance I was put off by the stylistic shift, but looking back I find it wholly pointed and admirable. Sherman is making a theatrical yet wholly valid statement about love.

Through Sherman's and the production's skills, the play is infinitely more appealing than any outline can suggest and the major performances by Richard Gere, as Max, and David Dukes, as his ultimate lover, are exceptional. Personally appealing, Gere gives a highly resourceful, considered performing weight and offers the promise of becoming a truly major American actor. I look forward to his career with the keenest respect. m

Adding to this situation of characterless stages are sketches that proclaim themselves plays. Hyper-active Joseph Papp is a decidedly guilty producer of this genre. Earlier this season the Eisenhower saw one of his Public Theater exports, Tina Howe's "The Art of Dining," little more than a sketch about the trials of running a country restaurant. Amusing as Howe's dialogue was, I found something lacking in a play wherein the dramatic highpoint was the creation of hollandaise sauce.

In his marvelous Astor Place beehive, Papp has three other exhibits. Peter Parnell's "Sorrows of Stephen" has its amusements about a young man so romantic that he'll snatch at straws, but despite the bright performances and adroitly staged locales, this is overstuffed fluff. "Marie and Bruce," concerning a constantly haggling, ill-matched couple, has no beginning and no end, suggesting that author William Shawn has been paying overly much attention to those stories in his editor-father's magazine, The New Yorker.

Just closed in Astor Place is Thomas Babe's "Salt Lake City Skyline," which sought to relate the trial of Joe Hill in the style of a ballad; but again, this would have been more effective in 20 minutes than in two acts.

In the same metier of an extended sketch, James Lapine's "Table Settings" is more satisfying than any of these. One of New York theater's favorite topics, Jewish family life, is Lapine's subject and, around various dining tables, he depicts this maternally dominated group through lines of observant wit and authentic rhythms. There is finesse to this production and cast and I anticipate the time when Lapine develops from sketch-writer to dramatist because when his characters are not on stage one vividly can imagine what they're doing.

Colin Higgins turned his popular novel-movie, "Harold and Maude," into a play; but it lasted scarcely long enough for audiences to realize what a charming performer Janet Gaynor proved to be in her major stage bow at the age of 73. Like the Albee play, this concerns the art of dying. Its sense of affirmation, infinitely more compelling than Albee's bleak haze, was marred by literalness in settings and an imbalance of characterizations.

Gaynor's Maude, so pointedly softer than Ruth Gordon's of the film version, and Keith McDermott's Harold were played for sympathy; subordinate figures were caricatured. Wasn't this tipping the scales all wrong? It turned out more vaudeville than play, though I found it more touching than Albee's panegyric on the same theme.

For these reasons of ill-realized and up-from-the void characters, I turned eagerly to Russia of 1850, when Ivan Turgenev wrote "A Month in the Country."

Under Michael Kahn's direction, the Roundabout Theater's production is immensely satisfying. Tammy Grimes triumphantly defeats her penchant for mannerisms to create a lovely, inwardly tense Natalya. Others in this disciplined cast include Farley Granger, Roy Cooper, Kelsey Grammer, Jerome Kilty and Amanda Plummer, daughter of Grimes and Actor Christopher Plummer.Tending more to a squeak than a croak, Plummer's voice is as distinctive as her mother's and, a tiny replica, she has her father's dynamic poise.

After my siege of sketchily conceived characters, what a relief it was to come upon a houseful of realized, recognizable individuals.