"The Pirates of Penzance" captured the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center last night but, like the maiden in the Gilbert & Sullivan musical, no one was anxious to escape their clutches.

As Richard L. Coe, master of ceremonies for the evening, put it, "It's been a long time since I've heard applause during a movie." And judging by the reaction of the audience, which stomped and cheered after every big number in the musical, Joseph Papp, the film's producer, had earned the Richard L. Coe Award, presented to him at ceremonies following the screening.

Under the Jolly Roger flag, the third annual Coe Award ceremony, a benefit for the New Playwrights' Theatre, began early and ended late. The ticket prices determined just how many events one was invited to attend.

Box-seat holders ($250 a ticket or $1,000 a box) went to an intimate reception at the Kennedy Center's Green Room before the screening. The $50 ticketholders went to a reception in the Atrium at the Kennedy Center. About 300 holders of priority seats (at $100 each) and box seats went on to a standing-room-only party at the British Embassy's rotunda. Nearly 1,000 people, including those in the $10 balcony seats, attended the movie and the presentation to Papp of the Coe Award "for significant contributions to the development of original material for the theater." The award evening, named in honor of the drama critic emeritus of The Washington Post, netted about $20,000 for the innovative theater.

John Houseman, in introducing Papp, said, "At a time when one might have predicted the demise of American theater, Joseph Papp started the free Shakespeare Festival in New York and then the Public Theater. There's an old saying that he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon, but Papp has been able to not only run Public Theater but has gone on to produce more than a hundred commercially successful plays."

Papp said that "the Kennedy Center, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the three reasons for Washington's importance." He paid tribute to "Jack" Houseman for having revived the theater during the Depression and, after a successful career as a producer and director, having gone on to be one of the most important actors of the day.

Papp spoke highly of Harry Bagdasian, New Playwrights' founder and artistic director, as "the man behind the New Playwrights' Theatre."

Roger Stevens, chairman of the Kennedy Center, also lauded Papp, saying, "Joe has discovered more talent, more original plays, than any man in America." Mildred Bautista, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, read a tribute to Papp in which she said, "Public life is a continual struggle to be able to make quality choices," and she declared yesterday "Joseph Papp Day."

Receiving congratulations after the movie at the Atrium reception, Papp said that he was pleased with the audience response to his first movie. "I learned how to fight for what was important and not to compromise, though they do everything they can to make you."

George Rose, who played the very model of the modern major general, said he thought the editing of the movie was dreadful. "Half of the major general's song was cut. I don't think the editors understood what they were doing. People on the Coast don't know much about Gilbert & Sullivan."

Papp agreed that "some of the cuts were not good. I had convinced Ned Tannen, president of Universal which distributed the movie , to restore some of the cuts, but, just before the prints were finished, Tannen was fired.

"Even so, we thought we did well not to tamper with the effects that brought out the applause tonight. The audience reacted to it just as though it were a play instead of a movie." Papp said that he plans to go on to film "Plenty," now playing on Broadway.

Angela Lansbury, who plays Ruth in the film, said, "Even though I'm English, I never liked Gilbert & Sullivan when I was growing up. Not 'til I filmed the movie did I really enjoy it." Lansbury said that she is currently working on a revival of "Mame," one of her most famous roles, which will play in New York and, she hoped, in Washington. Lansbury, dressed in "Mame"-style black dinner pajamas, drew admiring comments from some who said she looked 10 years younger and 20 pounds thinner in person than she did in the movie.

Kevin Kline, the pirate king in the movie, and Rex Smith, the pirates' apprentice, swashbuckled their way from the big screen down to each of the receptions. The two were surrounded by women. One of the admirers said neither looked natural without their swords and their high boots. Kline said Papp "gave me an antique sword on opening night, but I didn't bring it with me. But I'm beginning to think I can use an inflatable one." Smith, in a tuxedo with a red tie, said he would have brought his sword with him, but he couldn't get it through the airport metal detector.

Also attending last night were Lynda Johnson Robb, wife of the Virginia governor, and their two daughters, Cindy and Cathy; Marion Javits, who is in town for the presentation this week of the Medal of Freedom to her husband, former New York senator Jacob Javits; Ruby Dee, who was still glowing from the response to her play at Howard University, "My Name Is Zora!"; and Cornelia Ravenal, author and composer of the New Playwrights' current musical, "Out of the Reach of Children."

In the crush at the British Embassy, where lines were frequently tangled as guests scrambled for shrimp and crayfish, Roger Stevens said, "In real estate we would say that this place has a high pedestrian traffic."

Rex Smith and his party walked in, looked around at the crush and asked a young woman how to get to the American Cafe'.