With "The Physicists," the quality of the questions being put forth on the stage of the Eisenhower Theater has escalated dramatically.

Friedrich Du rrenmatt's play, which last night officially launched the Kennedy Center's six-play association with CBS, Inc., deals with no less a concern than our ability to blast ourselves off the very planet. And it cloaks the scary subject in a sardonic humor that, frankly, does not allow much hope for halting the infernal machine. Although you may have some quibbles with Du rrenmatt's dramaturgy, there is no denying that he has put together a grimly absorbing fable about the single most important dilemma facing 20th-century man.

Du rrenmatt wants to know what is to be done with scientific knowledge, now that it has so far outpaced our ability to control it. Does the genius forge ahead in the heady freedom of investigation, when his discoveries in lesser hands spell death and destruction? Or does he have the obligation to exercise moral control over his revelations, even to the point of suppressing them? That debate -- and it is a debate -- crops up midway through the second act, although matters are not quite so cut and dried as they may appear to be.

You see, Du rrenmatt's play is laid in the feudal wing of a posh European sanitarium, populated by three physicists, who from all indications have gone round the bend. One of them (Brian Bedford) wears a brocaded frock coat and a wig of cascading curls and thinks he's Sir Isaac Newton. The second (George Grizzard) pacifies his nerves by scraping away at the fiddle; he claims to be Albert Einstein. ("You may call me Albert," he says, his mole-like eyes blinking sleepily, as if he'd just been aroused from a deep winter's hibernation.) The third (Len Cariou), receives regular visitations from King Solomon and may be the greatest unknown genius of all time, Johann Wilhelm Mo bius. Each of them also displays a distinct penchant for strangling their nurses, which keeps both the local police inspector (Rex Robbins) and the chief psychiatrist (Irene Worth) hoppingly busy.

In a madhouse, however, nothing is ever quite as it appears, and the same obtains for "The Physicists," which announces itself initially as a macabre comedy. Du rrenmatt proceeds to turn the situation inside out several times, before venting his true fears about the demons inherent in modern science. The transformations are often abrupt -- and the final coup de the'a tre comes very nearly out of nowhere -- but they are not without flashy theatricality.

Being a profound pessimist, Du rrenmatt recognizes, like Mo bius, that "what was once thought can never be unthought." Once the scientific cat has been let out of the bag, so to speak, there's no putting it back. But, being the son of a Swiss pastor, he cannot entirely forsake a chilly high-mindedness, either. He wants to deliver his doomsday lecture at the same time he realizes the futility of all lectures. It makes for a curious paradox. If "The Physicists" is a cautionary tale, it is very much a cautionary tale after the fact.

Although it lacks the slippery momentum of "The Visit," a more accomplished Du rrenmatt drama, "The Physicists" does possess the same mordant irony. Indeed, what is most arresting about the work is its implicit conviction that the world is a vast madhouse, and that sanity and insanity are really reversible garments. By treating mayhem in the sanitarium as if it were perfectly routine (the chief psychiatrist paves the way: murder in her lexicon is "an accident"), the Kennedy Center production can be grotesquely funny at times -- the way, say, a Charles Addams cartoon is funny. Director Stephen Porter has lavished a wry intelligence on the staging, and the cast is first-rate, even the walk-ons.

Worth presides over the establishment with a crisp professionalism that is in no way impeded by the hump on her back. Her smile is like rouge on a razor blade and her compassion, dutifully displayed, could freeze over an oasis. I'm not sure that Du rrenmatt prepares us for her ultimate transformation, but the actress does: From her first entrance to her last, as if on wheels, the lady is clearly a zealot.

Bedford is wonderfully fatuous as Newton, squinching up his entire face in lemon-fresh disdain, and Grizzard's Einstein has the scratchy charm of an old sweater. But the toughest assignment is Cariou's. His character, Mo bius, really wants to pass unnoticed, to be left alone, to remain a nonentity in a padded cell. He doesn't capitulate to his emotions so much as he struggles to escape their clutches. Cariou plays the perpetual flight brilliantly.

There are also fine cameos by Robbins, drolly befuddled as the inspector; June Hansen, as the head nurse, who maintains her imposing facade by lifting weights; and Jeanette Landis, as Mo bius' pudgy wife, a rose-faced woman for whom the height of ignominy is working for the Tobler chocolate factory. William Ritman's set, which goes through a few transformations of its own, is a properly austere abode, made even more chilling by Martin Aronstein's lighting, while Jane Greenwood's costumes spin subtle variations on drab. In every department, the Kennedy Center has obviously mounted the work with care and detail, all of which augurs well for its future collaborations with CBS.

What just may be most encouraging, however, is the decision to lead with "The Physicists." It is simply not the sort of play we've come to expect in the Eisenhower, which has generally pursued a more frivolous bent. There, in the recent past, we have been asked to ponder whether James Mason would marry the scullery maid who bore him a son ("A Partridge in a Pear Tree"), how Elizabeth Taylor managed to shed her middle-age avoirdupois ("The Little Foxes") and just who would eventually get shut up in Claudette Colbert's air-tight vault ("A Talent for Murder").

Du rrenmatt's questions really are more to the point.

THE PHYSICISTS. By Friedrich Du rrenmatt. Translated by James Kirkup. Directed by Stephen Porter; scenery, William Ritman; costumes, Jane Greenwood; lighting, Martin Aronstein; with Brian Bedford, Len Cariou, George Grizzard, Irene Worth, Caroline Lagerfelt, Jeanette Landis, Rex Robbins, June Hansen. At the Eisenhower Theater through Jan. 16.