In the absence of a certifiable musical hit this season, the Best Play competition dominated the list of Tony Award nominations, announced yesterday in New York.

But it was a sign of the overall paltry season on Broadway that two of the nominated plays -- Athol Fugard's "The Blood Knot" and John Guare's "The House of Blue Leaves" -- had had prior off-Broadway productions. They will compete against Michael Frayn's "Benefactors" and Herb Gardner's "I'm Not Rappaport" for the honor, which will be announced June 1 during the 40th annual Tony Awards show, to be telecast live by CBS.

Normally, Fugard's play about the tensions of apartheid, written 25 years ago in South Africa and first performed off-Broadway in 1964, and Guare's zany comedy, a 1971 off-Broadway success, would have been relegated to the Best Revival category. But at a stormy meeting of the Tony Awards administration committee last week, both plays, which received belated Broadway productions this season, were allowed to compete in the more prestigious Best Play category.

Snubbed in the process was Lily Tomlin's extraordinary one-woman show, written by Jane Wagner, "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe," although the star was nominated for Best Actress.

The strongest showing in the musical categories was made by Rupert Holmes' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," an evening of Victorian music hall inspired by Charles Dickens' unfinished novel of the same name. It won 11 nominations, including one for Best Musical. The other nominees for Best Musical are: Bob Fosse's "Big Deal," tepidly received by the critics last month; Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song & Dance," a British import; and "Tango Argentino," an evening of tango dancing, which also won its cast a collective nomination for Best Choreography.

The race for Best Revival promises to be close, with the Kennedy Center's production of "The Iceman Cometh" vying against the Joe Orton farce, "Loot"; Noel Coward's "Hay Fever" (currently at the Eisenhower Theater); and the musical "Sweet Charity."

O'Neill's "The Iceman Cometh," while a financial flop, also garnered nominations for Jose' Quintero (Best Director), Ben Edwards (Scenic Design), and Thomas R. Skelton (Lighting Design). Quintero will be competing with the director of another O'Neill drama, Jonathan Miller, whose radical production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" tried out last month at the National Theater. "Long Day's Journey," a chronicle of O'Neill's troubled family, also got nominations for Jack Lemmon (Best Actor), Peter Gallagher (Featured Actor) and Bethel Leslie (Featured Actress).

Lemmon is up against stiff competition: Ed Harris for his performance as the patriarch in the family drama "Precious Sons"; Judd Hirsch for "I'm Not Rappaport"; and Hume Cronyn, as the British martinet who learns his wife is dying in "The Petition."

Not unexpectedly, Cronyn's co-star and real-life wife, Jessica Tandy, made the list of contenders for Best Actress, along with Tomlin; Rosemary Harris, as the flighty actress in "Hay Fever"; and Mary Beth Hurt, the teary British housewife in "Benefactors."

Nominations for Best Actor in a Musical went to George Rose, the ebullient emcee of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Maurice Hines of the short-lived "Uptown . . . It's Hot!"; Cleavant Derricks, a would-be safecracker in "Big Deal"; and Don Correia, who reprises the Gene Kelly role in the stage version of "Singin' in the Rain" that has defied critical lambasting and run for nearly a year.

For Best Actress in a musical, the nominators cited: Debbie Allen for "Sweet Charity"; Cleo Laine, the owner of an opium den in "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Bernadette Peters, who provides the first half of "Song & Dance"; and Chita Rivera, whose starring stint in "Jerry's Girls" came to an abrupt end when she broke her leg in an automobile accident.

The Tony Awards show invariably tries to present the Broadway season in as cheerful a light as possible. But this time, there is not a lot to celebrate. While the number of openings held at 33, the same as last year, that's still the lowest in Broadway history. Attendance, as of last month, was down to approximately 5.8 million -- nearly 600,000 fewer admissions than the preceding season. Box office income was also down by an estimated $16 million.

Other nominations are:

Book, Musical: Bob Fosse, "Big Deal"; Rupert Holmes, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Betty Comden and Adolph Green, "Singin' in the Rain"; Jane Iredale, "Wind in the Willows."

Score, Musical: "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes; "The News," music and lyrics by Paul Schierhorn; "Song & Dance," music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Richard Maltby Jr; "Wind in the Willows," music by William Perry and lyrics by Roger McGough and William Perry.

Director, Play: Jonathan Miller, "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; Jose' Quintero, "The Iceman Cometh"; John Tillinger, "Loot"; Jerry Zaks, "The House of Blue Leaves."

Director, Musical: Bob Fosse, "Big Deal"; Wilford Leach, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Richard Maltby Jr., "Song & Dance"; Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, "Tango Argentino."

Featured Actor, Play: Peter Gallagher, "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; Charles Keating, "Loot"; Joseph Maher, "Loot"; John Mahoney, "The House of Blue Leaves."

Featured Actress, Play: Stockard Channing, "The House of Blue Leaves"; Swoosie Kurtz, "The House of Blue Leaves"; Bethel Leslie, "Long Day's Journey Into Night"; Zoe Wanamaker, "Loot."

Featured Actor, Musical: Christopher d'Amboise, "Song & Dance"; John Herrera, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Howard McGillin, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Michael Rupert, "Sweet Charity."

Featured Actress, Musical: Patti Cohenour, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Bebe Neuwirth, "Sweet Charity"; Jana Schneider, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Elisabeth Welch, "Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood."

Scenic Design: Ben Edwards, "The Iceman Cometh"; David Mitchell, "The Boys of Winter"; Beni Montresor, "The Marriage of Figaro"; Tony Walton, "The House of Blue Leaves."

Costume Design: Willa Kim, "Song & Dance"; Beni Montresor, "The Marriage of Figaro"; Ann Roth, "The House of Blue Leaves"; Patricia Zipprodt, "Sweet Charity."

Lighting Design: Pat Collins, "I'm Not Rappaport"; Jules Fisher, "Song & Dance"; Paul Gallo, "The House of Blue Leaves"; Thomas R. Skelton, "The Iceman Cometh."

Choreography: Graciela Danielle, "The Mystery of Edwin Drood"; Bob Fosse, "Big Deal"; Peter Martins, "Song & Dance"; the Tango Argentino Dancers for "Tango Argentino."

A special Tony award for continued excellence by a regional theater: American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass.