Dressed in a bright red dress with white buttons and piping, the 12-year-old would-be actress stood nervously in front of the producer and his staff of casting experts. She had last appeared "as Cinderella at the Methodist church." Now she was hoping to land the title role in a planned Broadway production of "Lolita."

Have you ever read the book?" producer Jerry Sherlock asked her first off. "What book?" she replied.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul . . . She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. -- From "Lolita," by Vladimir Nabokov

She was one of two dozen young girls in a meeting room at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills yesterday morning. Sitting silent and patient in chairs ranged along the walls, they might have been in doctor's waiting room. But they were there to try out for the part of the most beguiling nymphet in literary history, lured by a general casting call to agents and ads in the Hollywood trade papers -- which specified that anyone over 13 need not apply. Several girls were over-age by a year or two; some looked like actresses twice their age, carefully made up and dressed in sexy sundresses. All were accompanied by at least one parent.

None of the aspring starlets had read the book by Vladimir Nabokov. None had seen the 1962 Stanley Kubrick movie, which starred Sue Lyon as the libidinous pre-teen. And none had heard of playwright Edward Albee, whom Sherlock commissioned a year and half ago to write the stage adaptation of the novel. The production will star Donald Sutherland as the lecherous academic, Humbert Humbert, who decribes himself in the novel as having "a cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile."

"My father told me it was about a youung girl who falls in love with her professor and tries to get him to like her," offered a 14-year-old who had a 20-year-old figure, but giggled in a 10-year-old voice: My mother said that I'd better not be like her." She handed Sherlock a resume and a photo of herself in a bathing suit and said that she is "really into gymnastics."

Sherlock did not attempt to sugarcoat the script. "This is a story of the love and lust of a young girl who falls in love with her stepfather, has an affair with him, and they run away together," Sherlock informed the next girl up, the 13-year-old Dyan Cannon lookalikel. "Do you think you can play that part?" he asked her.

"I'm an actress," she shrugged. "I can play anything."

Because of the actors' strike, the hopefuls were not allowed to perform or read from the script, and the auditions were limited to two-minute interviews. "We're just taking a look," Sherlock said.

The role will involve no nudity, but will require "plenty of overt sexuality on stage," Sherlock said. "Ideally, we're looking for an 11-year-old who really knows what's going on the world. After all, Lolita knows what she's getting into, she encourages it, and she knows that this kind of relationship is not popular in society."

Sherlock, according to the current issue of Town and Country, "made a fortune in the textile business and decided to go from rags to different kind of riches." The New-York-based producer began with the TV production of "Ahmal and the Night Visitors," anthen obtained the film rights to the upcoming movie "Charle Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen," starring Peter Ustinov. He is also planning remakes of some classic comedies with Alec Guinness, including "The Lavender Hill Mob" and "The Ladykillers." a

Dressed in white slacks and sneakers, his shirt open at the neck, the bearded and bespectacled Sherlock said that he was attracted to women "from 9 to 90, regardless of race, creed, color or national origin." But for the moment at least, he seemed most interested in what he called "the lust that's within most of us" for young girls. He said that "Dante had a mistress, Beatrice, who was 9 or 10." (Actually, Dante met Beatrice when she was 8, but never had any physical contact with her.)

"We've all seen her, on trains, at the beach, walking with her parents -- that little girl was something," Sherlock said. "When we see our Lolita we'll know."

I composed a madrigal to the soot-black lashes of her pale gray vacant eyes, to the five asymmetrical freckles of her bobbed nose, to the blond down of her brown limbs; but I tore it up and cannot recall it today. Only in the tritest of terms (diary resumed) can I describe Lo's features: I might say her hair is auburn, and her lips as red as licked red candy, the lower one prettily plump. -- From "Lolita "

During the five hours of interviews, Sherlock was gentle and fatherly, smiling benignly as one aspiring actress listed credits that included roles as "an angel in 'Hansel and Gretel,' and a boy and a mouse and a toy soldier in 'The Nutcracker.'" She wore a lace vest over a purple silk blouse and jeans. Last movie seen "Blue Lagoon."

Kari Clark, 11, didn't seem the type. She looked and dressed like a traditonal pre-teen, was shy and soft-spoken, with a tendency to drop her head and tuck her chin into her chest. She had gotten up at 6:45 a.m. and driven from Pasdena with her parents and younger brother to be the first in line. "Lolita is not my idea of what she should be doing for her first time," said her father. "But nothing else, it will be good experience for her," her mother said.

Malia (pronounced like Maria) Colleen Applewhite seemed more the part -- as stunning golden-haired seventh grader dressed in designer jeans and elaborately stitched cowboy boots. She said that she's been studing acting for six years and modeling in print and TV ads since she was 4. She said that her mother had told about the story: "A Frenchman took care of her [Lolita] and was very fond of her."

Applewhite was a hit. "A great look -- I'm giving her three checks," said Alvin Greenman, a dialogue coach who worked with Sherlock on their recently completed movie "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen."

Applewhite's mother was very proud of her daughter. She stopped in the middle of a long winding staircase to show a reporter the girl's portfolio, pulling out pictures of the girl in ads for Kool-Aid, Post Sugar Crisp and Wrangler Jeans.

"She's been in beauty pageants since she was 5, and last year she was Little Miss California. Right now she's the Levitz [furniture] girl.

"I must say I had mixed emotions over even bringing her here," said Mrs. Applewhite, who was familiar with both the book and the movie. "But each interview is an exposure to a different casting director. She's very particular, and if there's bad language in it she won't do it."

The stage production of "Lolita" is scheduled to open Jan. 23 at Wilbur Theater in Boston and then the move on to Broadway, Sherlock said. He will spend next Tuesday in New York City conducting Lolita interviews at the Diplomat Hotel. Later in the week he will interview in Boston.

Chris Trainor, casting director "for the day," said that there are "hard and fast rules" governing the employment of a juvenile actor, among them that a full-time tutor would have to be provided for the run of the show. "Of all the agents I called about this, I only had one -- a woman -- who didn't want to deal with it on moral grounds," she said. "Of course, all her girls and their mothers will probably show up anyway."

I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is only immortality you and I may share, my Loltia. -- from "Lolita "