"I am here," said Helen Hayes, "because I would go anywhere for Dick Coe . . . over coals of fire . . . on my knees."

The woman who had been introduced as "the first lady of the American theater" climaxed a tribute to the drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post, last night at the Kennedy Center, with a quote from Shakepeare's "The Tempest": "O brave new, world, that hath such people in it." The quote was applied not only to the critic, who "has turned many a shaky production into a successful one," according to Hayes, but also to the sponsors of the first annual Richard L. Coe Award, the New Playwrights' Theatre of Washington.

Helen Hayes hailed the small, experimental and financially beseiged theater as a group of "people who have dreams and who have the courage to make realities of them." The award, which will be presented each year for "the most significant contribution to the development of original material for the theater," was given first to its namesake, who accepted it as a possible symptom of "an identity crisis."

"At one time or another," he said, almost in a tone of self-defence, "I've knocked every member of this honorable committee, from Miss Hayes, Carol Channing and George Grizzard to Lillian Hellman, Author Miller, Anita Loos, Joshua Logan, the Fichandlers, Roger Stevens, David Merrick, Joe Papp and Jerry Lawrence, every single one of them. But because we're all after the same thing, we have maintained cordiality and built friendships."

If those names read like a catalogue of the theatrical establishment, so did the evening's proceedings in the Kennedy Center Atrium and the adjoining Experimental Music Theater Laboratory. But the centerpiece of the evening was a presentation of material from the New Playwrights' Theater -- making the event largely a tribute by the theatrical establishment to the theatrical outsiders, the stars making a bow to the hopefuls.

"This is a theater in Washington," said Harry Bagdasian, founder and director of New Playwrights' and a picture of the Kennedy Center appeared on a large screen behind him, looming majestic and secure on its height above the Potomac. "This is a theater in Washington," he repeated, and the picture changed to the brick front of New Playwrights' in the 1700 block of Church Street NW, looking remarkably like a piece of scenery with nothing behind it. What is behind the front, Bagdasian explained, is a space of 28 by 38 feet in which unknown actors can present the work of unknown playwrights -- a "safe space" to try out new ideas.

The $100-a-plate benefit attracted 278 persons last night and at least one $1,000 contribution from an anonymous enthusiast who couldn't attend because she was busy playing on Broadway. The crowd was primarily made up of Washington theater people, but there was a high proportion of New Yorkers and at least one who came all the way from Alaska.

"As the song says, 'There's no people like show people,'" said Sandra Westin, co-chairman of the event. "We had total support from the New York and Washington theatrical communitities. Their instant response was, 'What do you need?'"

The lobby of the music lab was thriftily and thematically decorated with posters from Washington theaters -- such shows from the Kennedy Center as "Death and the King's Horseman," "Charlie and Algernon" and "Every Good Boy Deserves Favour" blending with plays from the National, Arena and other theaters.

Prominently displayed at the entrace were posters for such New Playwrights' productions as "An Evening Without Liza Minnelli" "Hagar's Children" and one that proclaimed: "Girls Gams Laughs/The Most Popular Musical of All Time!!/Hamlet!!"

"This is nice. It's just like New York," said one guest, looking out a large picture window at Virginia, across the Potomac, which seemed to be trying to look like the New Jersey Palisades.

Perhaps the best joke of the evening was given by Joseph Duffey of the National Endowment for the Humanities, reflecting on Coe's continuing popularity after his semi-retirement.He recalled a millionaire who asked his wife, "Would you still love me if I lost all my money," and her answer: I'd love you. I'd miss you, but I'd still love you."

He also joked about the guest of honor: "Richard Coe has not slept through many long plays -- and if he has, we all admire the way he has written about his dreams."

"I am excited and flattered," said actor George Grizzard, opening his evening's chore as master of ceremonies. "I thank my mother, my agent and NBC. That's the speech I didn't get to make last week [at the Emmy awards]. I'm on strike. I was told that if I don't mention Nbc, cbs, ABC, MGM, Warner Brothers or Vitagraph I would be allowed to speak here tonight."

Joan Fontaine objected to the habit people still have of describing her as a "movie star." I've done a play a year for the last 20 years," she said, "and I'm ready to do one here if you ask me." She said that, living single in New York, she has found that she prefers critics -- including the happily married Coe -- as escorts. "One evening with a critic is like a total rest cure -- like three weeks at Main Chance," she said, "because he sits there and tells you his opinion on everything under the sun and all you have to do is watch the guests go by." She described women who prefer critics -- like herself and Coe's wife, Christine -- as "humble, charming monosyllabic women of great taste and discrimination."

She described Coe as "the great rarity, a critic who loves actors and loves directors and loves playwrights and even, by God, loves producers." Negative comments about critics were heard frequently from this show-business crowd, including one that described a critic as "a legless man who teaches running." But they were not applied to Coe.

Novelist and aspiring playwright Warren Adler, whose play "Father Glory" will open in New York early next year, praised Coe lavishly at the cocktail reception. "A good critic can help the art to grow," said Adler, "but some of them are cruel."

Coe was more modest. "I am the whipped cream on the enchilada," he said.

"The enchilada is Harry Bagdasian and his idea."