The National Theatre management is suing the Kennedy Center to recover over $172,000 that the center "wrongfully" drew from the National's bank account, according to a suit filed in U.S. District Court here last week.

The Kennedy Center -- which booked plays for the National until Jan. 10 of this year -- is entitled to certain amounts of the National's profits for the center's services, and does have the authority to withdraw money from the National's account.

But the center's action came as "a total surprise," according to Harry Teter, vice president for operations of the New National Theatre Corp., which operates the theater.

"We figured, after Jan. 10, when we got our books together and figured out [what the profits were], we'd give them their money then," Teter said yesterday.

The Kennedy Center withdrew the sum last December and placed it in an escrow account arranged so that neither the National nor the center can have separate access to the money.

"Why'd I take the money?" Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, explained yesterday. "Because they owed us $244,000, according to our auditors. If somebody double-crossed you, would you let them keep the money?"

He was referring to the National's decision last October to terminate its booking arrangement with the center -- even though, Stevens said, the center had attempted since 1974 to aid the physically deteriorating and financially troubled National Theatre.

"But it's all right," said Stevens. "It's not important. We'll probably settle out of court. The lawyers are supposed to get together.

"It's all ours," Stevens said about the money. "But I don't like lawsuits. If they want to settle, fine. If not, we'll get into a great big lawsuit and they'll wish they'd never heard of us."

Lawyer Sheila Albin, of the firm that represents the New National Theatre Corp., said she had no comment on Steven's remarks. "It has not been settled yet," she said about the suit.

Maurice Tobin, president of the New National Theatre Corp., said, "I can't comment on the lawsuit. It has not been settled."

As for "double-crossing" the Kennedy Center, Tobin said, "I don't see how they can say they were double-crossed. They didn't properly manage the theater." The National spent several months last year completely dark" (without shows).

Stevens said in response to Tobin, "I would be very glad to have any non-interested theater person examine the National Theatre and see if it was badly handled.That's nonsense. I think I've had a little more experience than Mr. Tobin in managing theaters."

National board members said the theatre needs the money the Kennedy Center has put in escrow. "We're strangled without it," said Donn Murphy, vice-chairman of the board, noting that the National needs the money when it negotiates for new shows. "We also have a leaky roof."

Although there is some disagreement over exactly when the National's profits are to be divided between the center and the National -- and just how large the profits are -- no one disagrees on the formula for the split. After an allocation for "reserves" (money from box office receipts set aside to run the theater), the center and the National split half-and-half on the first $100,000, according to contractual agreement. The Kennedy Center gets 75 percent of the next $100,000, and 100 percent of profits in excess of $200,000.

The Marriott and Quadrangle companies are now in the process of buying the National Theatre on the condition, according to Stevens, that they put hefty sums into improving it.

The National is "going to pick up a lot of improvements, so we don't feel they deserve any reserve," said Stevens.

Stevens also said that the Kennedy Center, as management and booking agent for the National, "worked hard to get them the Marriott-Quadrangle deal. They're getting tremendous benefits from the Marriott-Quadrangle deal -- if and when it comes through."

Stevens said that the Kennedy Center, in efforts to help the National, sometimes loaned it money. "We acted like their unofficial banker," said Stevens. "No other management company would have done that."

"We desperately need the reserve," said Tobin. "We need $250,000 alone to convert from a hemp house [in which scenery is raised and lowered with ropes] to a modern theater. There's no other theater on the East Coast where they pull down the scenery with ropes. Quadrangle-Marriott have their hands full with all the other improvements -- expanding the lobby, putting in more bathrooms, modernizing for the handicapped.

Tobin denied that Stevens worked hard to get Quadrangle and Marriott the bid on the development of the whole block -- including redoing the National -- for the new downtown area.

"He supported the Portmans of Atlanta, Ga.," Said Tobin."The Portmans wanted to come in and build a new theater across the street and we bitterly opposed that." (The future of the National when developers came in to refurbish that downtown area was a matter of controversy at one time.)