Just now, the man is Washington's Chinese puzzle, as complex as the thin pieces of weed that make 300 shapes. Richard V. Allen, the president's national security adviser: What is he up to?

Is he playing the mandarin intrigues of his forerunner, Henry Kissinger? Or is he as brashly ruthless as his immediate predecessor, Zbigniew Brzezinski? Is he fighting Alexander Haig? Or playing along?

Or is he, in light of Haig's well-publicized flaps, quietly emerging?

"He's doing the job that was originally contemplated," says his bass, presidential counselor Edwin Meese III.

"He's a canny character," wrote the late New Republic columnist John Osborne. "He's made an asset, for instance, of being put under Counselor Meese."

"The key to Dick Allen," says a Haig ally in the State Department, "is what happened in 1968. Henry Kissinger aced him out in a classic bureaucratic ploy and threw him into right field. That's what changed him from being an idealistic intellectual into a tough, savvy, bureaucratic in-fighter."

Allen himself provides few clues to the puzzle. Some pieces:

Allen the party-goer, murmuring on the sidelines with columnist Robert Novak. Allen the family man, driving the children he dotes on. Allen the team player, causing one top White House adviser to say "he's done everything we've asked in terms of keeping his head down." And Allen the survivor, pinned in a 1973 plane crash that broke both his legs and changed, he says, his aspirations.

"How could I be any more ambitious?" he says now. "I sit in the White House, in a position of trust. I work closely with the president of the United States, really at the top of the heap. I was around here twice before. This time I'm in a slightly more elevated, or august, position. I can walk away." Puzzle in Low Profile

Here are some more pieces: Richard Allen is 45, a Soviet hard-liner, former whiz kid, runner on Washington's fast track. He has neat glen plaid suits, a small paunch, nine-guy charm and silvery hair cut by Milton Pitts, barber to presidents.

"This job is central casting for him," says his friend, presidential counsel Fred Fielding. "He likes the glamor of politics, he likes the interplay, he likes the academics."

His fans says he has the ability to compress sophisticated analysis into a central argument; his critics say he's not brilliant. Centainly, he isn't the scholar that Kissinger and Brzezinski were. "I used to fancy myself one," he says, "but in recent years, I've been more attuned to measuring results. The portfolio isn't necessarily that of an intellectual. The portfolio is one of the assistant for national security affairs to the president."

Allen sniped with Henry Kissinger at the Nixon White House, losing out but developing an imitation of the former secretary of state that he refined to a crowd-pleaser. Now he periodically talks to Richard Nixon about Reagan foreign policy. He has four houses, seven children and overseas business ties that have caused him trouble.

He has been best known for his low profile. "You're seeing a disappearing act right now," he told reporters after Ronald Reagan named him national security adviser last December. The idea was to downgrade the National Securityy Council and upgrade the State Department, giving Alexander Haig the single voice in foreign policy. Allen not only agreed, he endorsed. h

But in the last few weeks, as more of the press complain of a disarray in Reagan foreign policy, the White House appears to be enlarging Allen's role. And Haig aides -- who last week angered the White House with reports that they criticized U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, Meese and Allen himself -- may just be helping him along.

"It always seemed to me that Dick, in taking this low profile, made a wise decision," says one White House adviser. "But the inevitable forces that exist in any government situation are going to add stature and weight to the National Security Council -- and particularly the national security adviser."

There are other theories. "There's the school of thought," says a State Department official, "that says Allen's over his head, he's not substantively prepared for the job and knows it. So he's just trying to keep his head down and survive. On the other hand, he's in an administration with some heavy hitters. He's trying to not confront them directly, and is really playing a much more Machiavellian strategy. Let the others battle it out -- and then Allen can step forward."

"That's an intersting theory," responds Allen. "Either I'm sinister of Machiavellian -- what kind of a choice is that?"

Beyond the theories he's still a riddle, a devoted husband who leans on his wife, a cool adviser who has the president's trust, a gregarious man about town who thrives on the gossip. He seems to have a different personality for each different occasion.

The faces of the puzzle: The Party-Goer

"It's very human," says an NSC staffer. "You go to a party and everyone hangs on to every word you say. He just loves it, that's all."

Scene 1: The White House Correspondents' Association dinner, April 25. A gaggle of friends, reporters and hangers-on have collected around Allen.

"Where did you get that tan?" a woman asks him.

"I'm tan all over," he replies with a devilish grin. In his hand is a copy of the National Journal, apparently just handed to him. He flips to his picture on page 688, then reads an accompanying sentence about his "disappearing act."

"Ah hah!" he laughs, pointing to the picture. "Look at this guy! Lower profile!" He takes a few dance steps.

Scene 2: The White House state dinner for West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, May 21. Allen and Schmidt are in a corner of the Green Room, speaking in German. Haig is nearby.

"How can you let Dick Allen monopolize Schmidt?" somebody asks the secretary of state.

"He has to," deadpans Haig. "He has to apologize . . . for being Dick Allen."

Informed of Haig's remark, Allen responds: "He said that? Well, you write that! You put that in!"

Scene 3: A party at the Shoreham Hotel for South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan, Feb. 2. Allen is asked how he's getting along with Haig.

"Who?" he replies.

Scene 4: The White House correspondents' dinner again. "Your eminence!" Allen says to Henry Kissinger. "I would approach you on my kneecaps, but they're slightly worn tonight."

Like Kissinger, Allen appears to know how the party circuit can help. "Precisely because the official life is so formal," Kissinger wrote of Washington, "social life provides a mechanism for measuring intangibles and understanding nuances . . . It is at dinner parties and receptions that the relationships are created without which the machinery of government would soon stalemate itself."

But party life, handled improperly, can also hurt. "He overburdens himself," says a supportive NSC staffer. "If I were in his position, I'd cut out a lot of the social stuff. Maybe it's just that it's new." The Team Player

A transformation has occurred. Richard Allen, life of the party, has become Richard Allen, team player. In an h our-long interview in his basement West Wing office, he is formal and discreet: the perfect company the one who described this job to the president a couple of years ago as to how it would be run," he says. "I was here before and saw what happened. You should not drive foreign policy from in here. Coordinate, yes."

His office is modest by White House standards. He has a street-level view of the Executive Office Building, fluorescent lights, an American flag in an urn, ultra-white walls, a huge color picture of his family in front of the U.S. Capitol, a framed enlargement of a Boston Globe editorial referring to Allen as part of a "one-two punch of formidable magnitude." Magazines on the coffee table: The Economist, The New Republic, Washington Monthly, National Review, the Newsweek magazine with Haig on the cover. The headline asks: "Who's In Charge Here?"

In one corner is a sandbox, obtained by Allen after columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak called him a member of "The Sandbox Right." "I think they meant the troglodyte right," he laughs. Now it's empty except for seashells from his Sanibel Island, Fla., home.

"Janet," Allen calls to his assistant, Janet Colson, "did we send this El Salvador thing to the president, or did we not?"

One negative used against Allen is that he's not strong in overseeing details -- a prime qualification of the job as he himself has defined it. "If there's any weakness," says a senior White House administrator, "it's with some of his staff. Paper work isn't ready on time, and papers have been lost a couple of times."

The White House triumvirate -- Ed Meese, James Baker and Mike Deaver -- springs quickly to Allen's defense. But one top White House official says that "Mike has reservations."

"Not so," responds Deaver."I think he's a very bright guy who's done a good service for the president. He's very consistent with the Reagan philosophy. I think the NSC operation is improving daily . . . there is always a problem with paper work. It's a constant battle in the White House."

"Of all the senior people around here," says Baker, "Dick is given the bummest rap. He's received some criticism he's not due. He does a good job."

He also does what is essential for effectiveness in the Reagan White House: team playing. "Dick is too sophisticated not to realize that by being a strong team player, he's going to become a stronger influence," says David Gergen, White House communications chief.

Last week, for instance, Allen turned up at a Los Angeles meeting originally scheduled to include just Reagan and Haig. Haig was returning from Asia, and as Allen explained his reason for attending: "He was meeting with the chief and reporting on an extremely important trip."

Allen's "team playing" also shows up in the delicacy of foreign policy and White House maneuvering -- a world of subtle symbols and tea leaves that can be read four different ways. Allen knows the ways.

When the administration decided to sell advanced radar planes -- called AWACS -- to Saudi Arabia, one State Department official says Allen was against it. But Allen, who is considered a friend of Israel, didn't press Meese or Baker, fearing he'd cause controversy and lose ground. "The Israelis distrust him for that reason," says the State Department official.

Allen, who leads the White House effort to persuade Congress to approve the sale, denies this. "Not so," he says. "I supported the package from the beginning."

"He doesn't like confrontation," says an NSC staff member. "In a couple of cases, when I had cases against the State Department and the Defense Department, he didn't back me. He said, 'Let it go.' If he wanted to, he could get in touch with State and say, 'My people have to have this material for this and that.' But I presume he knows what he's doing, so I accept his judgment."

Allen works quietly. When Alexander Haig presented Reagan with his Jan. 20 memo proposing that the secretary of state be the dominant voice in U.S. foreign policy, the job of White House foreign policy coordinator was described as an either/or position: either Meese of the national security adviser, but not both. This is according to a State Department official who says he saw the original memo.

Allen, says the State Department official, "choked it off." By the time the memo had worked its way through the White House hierarchy, it had been substantially altered. Among the changes: There was a coordinating role for Meese and Allen.

"Choked it off?" responds Allen. "My goodness. I would prefer to say that as the document wound its way through the White House, common sense and reason prevailed."

Allen says he and Haig get along well. Some reporters write that they don't. (Case in point: The New York Times, May 31: "Several people, for example, both inside and outside the government, report that Mr. Allen has told them that Mr. Haig is not, truly, a friend of Israel. They also say that Mr. Allen has given doctors as his authorities for claiming that patients who undergo bypass heart surgery, which Mr. Haig experienced, develop an uncontrollable urge to dominate other people.")

Allen is also suspected by some at the State Department of leaking damaging information about Haig to columnists.

"That's nonsense," he replies. "I don't do it. It's so tacky and stupid, because it'll always come back to the leaker." The Family Man

One way to show the human side is to invite a reporter over for dinner with the children. Richard Allen knows he has charming children.

It's a rainy Monday, 7 p.m., at a red brick house in Arlington. There are kids everywhere you look. From the top:

Michael, 22, a law clerk; Michael's girlfriend, Sheri; Kristin, 20, a junior at the University of Virginia; Mark, 18, a sophomore at UVA; Karen, 17; Kas, 16; Kevin, 13, and Kim, 5. Overseeing the crowd is Allen's wife Pat, 45, a shy, quietly attractive woman who the family says is her husband's stabilizer.

("She won't let me push the button," Allen jokes later. "I try every night.")

The dress for dinner is jeans and college sweatshirts; the look is all-American. Everyone has athletic figures, glowing skin and shiny hair. Outside is a deck overlooking a full-sized basketball court. Inside in the family room is a hardwood floor, skylight, ceiling fan and fireplace. There are big, healthy plants in the corner and cheese and crackers on the coffee table. Kim parks herself enthusiastically in front of them, but then everybody starts yelling "Kiiii-iiiimmmm!" The older kids drink white wine before dinner. Allen's still at work.

He makes it home by 7:30. Another transformation. Richard Allen, discreet adviser, is now Richard Allen, spark of a family. You can orchestrate a dinner and table conversation, but you can't orchestrate honest feeling.The kids are warm, gregarious and smart. Parents and children like each other.

"We're close-knit," Allen says, "but not sappy about it."

Dinner is spaghetti, salad and Italian bread. The table talk runs from the washing machine Kristin wants for her new apartment to what Vice President George Bush is doing these days. There is snickering about Haig, talk of the assassination attempt on the president, and a White House phone in the corner that rings once during the evening. It's Fielding. Nobody gets excited. It may be the White House, but it's also just Dad's office. Politics and press attention have become routine.

"Yeah," says Kevin, recalling the time his father left the Reagan campaign because of conflict-of-interest charges, "every nun in my school came up to me and said, 'We're praying for your father since he's out of a job.'"

After dinner, Allen moves to the family room couch and starts eating sugar-coated peanuts. His wife sits in a chair beside him. Five of the seven kids assemble around them, listening as their father is interviewed. They're utterly silent for the first time all evening.

"If what you're after is power," Allen say, at least in this administration, you're on the wrong track. You can't measure in terms of power. Sometimes I don't know how much I have. Can I do most of the things I want? Yes. Can I call people and demand things I want? Probably a lot.

"With this president, there was the opportunity to change things, the opportunity to put your ideas into practice. It wasn't just to come to Washington, because I've been here before. And it wasn't to enjoy the perquisites of power, because they're not so attractive anymore.

"The best part," he says, "is being able to know how you've changed things at the end of the day, how you'e started things, stopped things, managed to get someone appointed, disappointed."

Kristin speaks up, answering a question directed at her. "He's got a huge ego," she laughs. "And everyone else in this family does, too."

Her father, she says, is demanding. "You got it," Mark says. "That's the word."

The kids laugh again, delighted with the opportunity to take playful swipes at their father. The next thing to come up is his temper.

"The big things he takes coolly and calmly," says Karen.

"Car wrecks," offers Kristin, casting a meaningful eye on Karen.

"I think I'll leave now," says Karen.

"You learn to know when to laugh when be blows up," says Kristin. "Like the little things."

Then she continues, more seriously. There are certain things that have been expected of us, some as long as we can remember. There was never any direct pressure put on any of us -- just a high set of standards . . . when you're told that your rear end will be swatted if you come home from UVA without making the dean's list, that gives you a little bit of motivation."

So, is there on quality -- one word -- they can say that their father instilled in them?

"Win," says Kas.

"Rule," says Kristin.

"Conquer," says Karen. The Businessman

Dick Allen grew up Roman Catholic in Merchantville, N.J., the son of a salesman in the crop-dusting industry. He describes it as small-town idyllic although his parents are now separated. Allen doesn't want to talk about it.

He got a BA and MA from Notre Dame, later working toward a doctorate from the universities of Freiburg and Munich in West Germany. He became an assistant professor at Georgetown Tech, cofounded the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, then worked at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. Both are conservative think tanks.

He was usually called "Dr. Allen" in those days, although he never received his doctorate. He has said his professors demanded changes "on what I regard as political grounds. I refused."

He's now "Mr." instead of "Dr."

In 1967 he became director of candidate Richard Nixon's foreign policy research, in the process becoming a candidate himself for the job of national security adviser. But Nixon named Kissinger, then a top adviser in the rival Nelson Rockefeller camp. Allen became Kissinger's subordinate and, shortly thereafter, a well-known outsider. He left after less than a year.

"It wasn't the happiest of relationships," says Allen.

"he'd put in the grunt work for many, many months," says Allen's friend Ed Feulner, president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, "and to be passed over by somebody who was injected into the system by Nelson Rockefeller was a rather unpleasant situation. He was just a bright young man in a hurry."

Kissinger has declined comment on Allen, although the two make a point of being chummy rivals at parties. "He wanted to kiss my ring," Kissinger said after Allen tweaked him with his "I wanted to approach you on my kneecaps" remark. In Kissnger's massive volume, "White House Years," Allen is mentioned once, on page 10.

After leaving the White House, Allen shuttled between the government and private business. First he went to International Resources Ltd., an oil and mineral affiliate. In 1971, he returned to the White House as a presidential assistant for international trade and economic policy. In July 1972 he left the White House again, this time to form his own consulting business, Potomac International.

It was around this time that Allen was paid $10,000 per month for about six months to do consulting work for Howard Cerny, a lawyer for fugitive financier Robert Vesco. Allen, however, was never accused of any involvement in Vesco's alleged Swindling. In 1976, Allen was accused in a Senate hearing of soliciting a $1 million campaign contribution for the Nixon reelection fund from Grumman International, a defense contracting firm, in return for pressure on Japan to buy a Grumman plane. Allen denied the charge by a former Grumman official, and it has never been proved.

In 1977 Allen met Reagan through friends Peter Hannaford and Mike Deaver. He became an informal adviser, and in 1980, the chief foreign policy adviser to Reagan's campaign. He kept his business, that year paying himself a salary of $75,000.

On Oct. 30, 1980, Allen resigned from the Reagan campaign because of conflict-of-interest charges reported in The Wall Street Journal. The Journal article said Allen conducted private business negotiations with Japanese companies during his time at the White House in the early '70s; the article also said that Allen, as a result of his actitivties, claimed the right to benefit from a $120,000 per year account that an associate obtained from Datsun, the Japanese automaker.

Allen replied that he was a private citizen when the events occurred. Government records confirmed this: At the time, Allen was between the two Nixon White House jobs -- although he did belong to a government advisory committee on international trade. Committee members were unpaid and free to conduct private business.

"He was furious," says Fred Fielding. "Absolutely furious." But on Nov. 6, two days after Reagan's victory, Allen was back.

To avoid any future eruptions, Allen has sold Potomac International to Hannaford, a friend of the president's and a principal of the public relations firm that once handled Reagan's account. The private sale -- at an undisclosed price -- was finalized at Hannaford's white-on-white Foggy Botttom town house on Jan. 18, two days after Allen had attended a crowded inaugural party there for Republican insiders.

Neither Hannaford nor Allen will discuss the client list, although Hannaford does say most are commercial business or manufacturers in the Pacific. Some are Japanese, one is Canadian and none, says Hannaford, are "seeking anything in terms of U.S. policy."

But the possibility of conflict of interest is a concern, particularly since Hannaford and Allen are friends and occasional dinner partners. "Rest assured, we've been over that very carefully," says Fielding, Allen's lawyer until both went to the White House this year. "We've spent a lot of time discussing this." Consequently, Hanaford and Allen can't talk about particular business transactions.

"Oh, occasionally," says Hannaford, "I would call Dick and say, 'What is the protocol with this particular client, who is the most senior person?' and that sort of thing."

"There's no conflict of interest," Allen says. "With whom?" The Survivor

Vermont, February 1973. Dick Allen almost killed himself and his family in a private plane wreck. He broke both legs and spent six months in and out of the hospital. He hasn't piloted since.

Friends say it softened him. "I learned what it was like to nearly die," Allen says. "You have a different perspective on everyday life thereafter. Really. It could have been one of the kids who could have been killed, from which I don't think I would have easily recovered. Kristen, she and her girlfriend, without shoes, pulled Michael free from the plane. They couldn't get me out for quite a while. They went through the snow, she and her friend Mary Jane.

"It slowed me down a lot, in more ways than one. Among other things in the hospital, you can't get out and so you pity yourself, you lay plans for the future." He pauses. "It taught me a lot of things about myself, about my family." Another pause. "Pat had to make 25 round trips from New Jersey to Vermont to see me every week. . .

"It was a few months after I left the White House. I was trying to set up my consulting business. It, ah . . ." He pauses again. "I don't know. It was a lot of fast motion. I like motion. I like the pressure, I like to be busy all the time, when I went to the shore in the summertime, I spent more time in my woodworking shop fixing things. It taught me to separate things in my life -- that I wouldn't live 24 hours a day, whatever I was doing. And also, I think it reaffirmed that one shouldn't really have a plan for one's life, a goal or a timetable . . .

"I had considered running for office, I was thinking of running for Congress.There was sort of a treadmill. But it's important to make your own path."

"Afterward," says Kristin, speaking of the accident, "we did a lot more things together. We weren't as close-knot before. If it had to take a plane crash to get that out of it, it was worth it, I guess."

Allen spent months in a wheelchair. That summer on the Jersey shore, he went swimming with crutches. "A wave would knock him down," says Kristin, "and people would come up to help, and he'd say, 'Get the hell out of my way!'"

"He was determined he was going to go swimming," says Karen, "and he went."

Kristin remembers another time, before the plane crash. "At Vail, Dad decided he was going to ski. He got up at the top of the mountain and said, 'Get the hell out of my way!' Then he went down the mountain in the widest snowplow."

"Well," says her father, "skiing's just like anything else. You just get out there, and you'll be all right." The Adviser

Allen's primary source of power is his daily briefing with the president. At 9:30 each morning, he chairs a meeting in the Oval Office attended by the triumvirate, the vice president and either Haig or deputy secretary of state William Clark. The meeting lasts only 15 minutes -- and sometimes is only a written memo from Allen to the president -- but its effect far surpasses its time span.

"The man who briefs the president every morning," says an insider, "is a man who must take a tremendous amount of information that comes into the intelligence centers of the world and sift and mold it into a presentation of 15 minutes. That guy is going to have a very small, almost subtle effect on the whole tone and tenor of debate in the president's mind."

"Because you know the president's mind," says Walt Rostow, the national security adviser under Lyndon Johnson, "and because you're working with the secretaries of defense and state, you have the chance of holding that little team together. But the power really lay in seeing if you could widen the options open to the president."

Allen's official role is not to create policy but to organize it. But lately he has been more of a factor in U.S. foreign policy decisions, including helping to clear the way for sale of U.S. arms to China. He has also initiated long-range studies on U.S.-Soviet relations, China and Latin America. And it was Allen who first phoned Reagan about the Israeli raid on the Iraqi reactor. Haig called later.

Compared with recent national security advisers, this is still a background role -- and a role much closer to the original function of the first NSC, established by law under Harry S. Truman in 1947. Then it was a small working group of the president, vice president, secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director and chairman of the joint chiefs. A special national security adviser wasn't even considered. Clark Clifford, then a Truman aide, did most of the staff work.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to add the special adviser, and through years of increasingly complex foreign policy, the successive advisers accumulated more and more staff. At its peak under Henry Kissinger in the Nixon White House, the NSC numbered 156 and operated as a competing policy-making institution to the State Department. Turf fights were routine. Brzezinski's staff was just under 100, but like Kissinger, he was a high-profile infighter and powerhouse.

Not Allen. He has a 63-member staff tightly leashed from the press; when Allen himself does a background briefing for reporters, as he did for the recent Japanese, German and Mexican visits, the rules are that you refer to him as "an administration official." That way neither the State Department nor the NSC is publicly singled out as the authority.

Critics, including some NSC staffers, say the Reagan administration's system has submerged the NSC so far as to make it wholly ineffective. Others say a low-key NSC and a more powerful State Department is wishful thinking.

"There is a legitimate argument that it can't work this way," says an NSC official, "that inevitably, things will be driven back into the White House. And we know that this is never going to work perfectly. We fight, we fight like hell with Defense, CIA, State, a lot of other people. But we fight in an orderly way."

But Allen himself doesn't appear to mind the damage occurring between Haig and other Cabinet members, particularly Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense, with whom Haig sparred early in the administration.

"Allen told a staffer," says one observer, "that Weinberger and Haig are like two generals in a duel, and here we are in a trench, watching the artillery fly. None of it is hitting us.'"

"It's a nice thought," responds Allen, who nonetheless says he didn't say it. "Wherever mortar shells are going back and forth, it's better to be down low. You don't get hit that way." The Kissinger Comparison

Martin Anderson, the president's domestic policy adviser, is a good friend of Allen's. He thinks highly of him and dislikes it when people compare Allen to Kissinger, scholar and international celebrity.

"When Kissinger first came to the White House," Anderson says, "nobody kenw him. He was a relatively obscure Harvard professor, his office was precisely where Dick Allen's office is today, and he worked extremely long hours.

"If you want an accurate comparison," Anderson says, "compare what Henry Kissinger was doing on April 1, 1969, with what Dick Allen was doing on April 1, 1981."

March 21, 1981: A party at the George Town Club for White House press secretary Jim Brady, now recuperating from a gunshot would at George Washington University Hospital. Cabinet members, senior White House staffers, reporters attending. Everyone takes a turn at the microphone roasting Brady.

Allen's turn. The face is serious. He's an unknown quantity, a puzzle, to most of the crowd: What will he do?

"I vould like to take this opportunity . . ." he begins, his Kissinger imitation in superb form. The crowd, drinking enthusiastically, roars.

Richard Allen glows in the laughter.