One of the greatest pleasures of watching a master at work is to observe the small gestures, the grace notes that only the virtuoso can play. In "Early Days," which opened a four-week run last night at the Eisenhower Theater, Sir Ralph Richardson gives a performance so graceful and masterful that he provides a backbone for what might otherwise be a rather frail play.

Playwright David Storey wrote "Early Days" for Richardson, and the result is a rare matching of a skilled actor to the complex aprt given him. It is about an old man, Sir Richard Kitchen, whose political career climaxed with an appointment as minister of health. The career is long since behind him, the victim of "a 25-minute speech and a 15-second interview," and he has come to live with his daughter and son-in-law, tormenting them with his cantankerous ways and mischievous behavior -- like urinating on a nearby lawn because the owner would not let him use the bathroom. ("What is a person of my age supposed to do?" he asks his son-in-law.)

The play is about Sir Richard -- the other characters are but instruments in his orchestra, providing the fodder for his tirades, the motives for his complaints, and the catalysts for his emotions. It is also about age. The pronouncements Sir Richard makes are not necessarily what he is trying to say. Nor are the facts of his life -- which Storey leaves tantalilzingly vague -- important. What is there is essentially a tone poem about age, the almost psychedelic wanderings of senility of Sir Richard drifts from one reality to another without heeding the conventions of traditional conversation.

Storey captures perfectly the habit of repetition the old sometimes have -- perhaps because they fear that no one is listening or that they themselves may forget the fragile memories they still possess. Sir Richard is never tiresome to the audience, but we can see how he might be so to his family, repeating the line about the "25-minute speech . . .," the power he once had, his coy suspicions that every servant or doctor sent to attend him is a Russian agent sent to spy on him and encourage him to defect.

He is also extremely rude, prying into the marital difficulties of his newly hired "companion," telling his daughter she's wasted her life, suggesting to his granddaughter -- the one person he says he really loves -- that her new fiance would be "cured" of his desire to become a poet by "beating and hardship." He has a litany of certainties: "Marriage is a commitment to live; art is a commitment to self." Or: "Anyone who pursues decency in public live must lead a disreputable private life." He announces to his new doctor: "You're an opportunist, I like that. It's men of integrity I can't stand.

These pronouncements are amusing, but seem often to be the bluster of a man who is fretful, imprisoned in a body that is failing him, careening toward the end of his life. He mourns his dead wife; he is lonely without her. Yet both his daughter and granddaughter refuse to discuss her and claim that he destroyed her -- how, we never learn. "He's used to power, and when he doesn't have it grasps at everything around him," explains his son-in-law somewhat platitudinally at one point.

Richardson, with his face that is like an old potato, gives Sir Richard the texture that a lesser actor might not convey, making him not just a cranky old nuisance but a tragic figure. A character without humanity cannot be tragic, and without that dimension Storey's play might not pique our intellects or emotions. Which brings us to those small gestures: the small adjustment that Richardson makes to his footstool, for example, which he does with such delicate intention that it becomes clear that this man has nothing else to do; the way he holds his thumb and forefinger together in a touch of insouciance; and the eyebrow he lifts as though peering into the Great Beyond.

Richardson is 78, and at first he sounds like there is something wrong with his teeth. But he is not mumbling, and his age is a part of what the production has to offer. He is not just another old duffer trotted out to capitalize on past glories. Richardson has a comfort on stage that is only achieved by long familiarity with it; he makes his first entrance like a veteran lawmaker walking onto the Senate floor or an aged matador into the ring.

Although the other actors are necessarily less dominant, this all-British cast is excellent at communicating through their relationship to him some of the unspoken dimensions of Sir Richard. Marty Cruickshank is particularly good as the granddaughter who talks back. The play originated at Britian's National Theatre in April 1980, moved to a commercial theater and has since toured in England and Canada. The set by Jocelyn Hebert is a gauzy construct that immediately tells us we are not about to see a play in traditional form, and Alan Price's music is an effective complement to Sir Richard's mind.

Early Days: by David Storey, directed by Lindsay Anderso, designed by Jocelyn Herbert, lighting by Joe Davis, music by Alan Price; with Sir Ralph Richardson, Sheila Ballantine, Michael Bangerter, Marty Cruickshank, Gerald Flood, Edward Judd and Peter Machin. At the Eisenhower Theater through June 20.