It is hard to see how "The Bulldog and the Bear," the winner of the new play prize in the American College Theatre Festival, could have a life beyond the non-commercial stage on which it has been nurtured.

Author Richard Gordon, who also plays one of the leads, presents a not unpromising premise: Two 76-year-old men, one white and the other black, are forced by poverty to become roommates in a bleak two-room apartment. From this idea, Gordon could have gone in any of a number of directions. The problem is he went in all of them.

The two men in this California State University production get their nicknames from a question asked by a welfare department bureaucrat: "If you were an animal, which one would you be?" Aside from the fact that this seems a highly unlikely query of a senior citizen looking for lodging, it provides the play with a title.

After their initial meeting, at which George--"Bear"--presents a forbidding hostility to his black roommate, the tensions between them disappear like social security checks, and suddenly they are bosom buddies. Although it was probably wise of Gordon to avoid writing a geriatric version of "The Odd Couple," it is hard to believe that what is presented as stubborn resistance could dissolve so quickly.

Charlie, the "Bulldog," is the energetic one, preaching zest for life, while George is unable to recover from the death of his wife a few years earlier. As the play progresses, Charlie inspires George to enjoy life a bit.

The language is poetic, maudlin or melodramatic by turns, which seems out of character for a former shoemaker, if not for a one-time nightclub singer. Furthermore, the script is full of psychobabble that one simply does not accept coming from the mouths of two 76-year-old men on their uppers. Having George sob about how long it's been since he has talked about his feelings just doesn't ring true.

The plot also meanders from the central relationship into soap opera subplots that seem extraneous, although they do pick up the action. Charlie has a dream sequence with his niece, Angie. George gets arrested for shoplifting. The two stray into a strip joint and Charlie sings. Will Charlie tell Angie he is really her father? When will Charlie's chest pains turn into something serious?

Sometimes raw material can be turned into effective theater by brilliant actors, and perhaps the weaknesses of Gordon's play would seem less glaring with an extraordinary cast. The performances are adequate for college level, although both Gordon and Gregory Leach, who plays George, are older. Each has moments of real acting, but not enough to save the play.

"The Bulldog and the Bear," by Richard Gordon, produced by the California State University, Fullerton, directed by Alvin Keller, with Raymond J. Hanis Jr., Richard Gordon, Elinore O'Connell, James Matthis, Gregory Leach, Jamila Sheree Hunter, Regina LeVert, and Stephen Crossley.

At the Terrace Theater today at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.