As the Iran-contra committees ended their televised forum yesterday, drawing the curtain on Washington's answer to summer stock, at least one question was left hanging in the air: Did the panel's 26 members wrap themselves in glory or shame?

It was a close call, right down to the last.

"I am reminded of a line that appeared in a play that I saw in New York a number of years ago," Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), the final interlocutor, insisted on telling Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, the final witness. McClure then recounted how a character in "Butterflies Are Free" objected to a reference in a play within the play to intimate sexual behavior. The playwright argued that it was true to life. "So is diarrhea," was the reply, "but I don't know how to make it entertaining."

"And I think you can apply that to these proceedings and many others like it," the senator persisted as laughter filled the room, "that diarrhea may be part of life and that this may be a part of our government, but it hardly serves U.S. interests well to reveal it in such intimate and gruesome detail."

"On that note of intimacy," said Senate Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), "we have come to a close as far as the questions are concerned."

It was an odd way to conclude a raging policy debate.

"I don't know how old McClure is," said political consultant Robert Squier, "but when you reach a certain age, your metaphors begin to go back."

Squier, a Democrat, was otherwise uninspired by McClure's overall performance during the three months of hearings, but had nice things to say about another panelist, Sen. George Mitchell (D-Maine).

"I thought Mitchell has come out improving his reputation," Squier said. "He had a point of view of how the hearings should run and it was something he actually had thought out. He didn't seem to be part of anybody else's script."

Republican consultant Roger Stone agreed. "Mitchell did not come across as the partisan that Inouye did," he said. "He came across as thoughtful. He was one of the few on the antiadministration side who didn't hurt himself."

"I wouldn't be surprised to see him as an early appointment to the Supreme Court," enthused public relations executive Frank Mankiewicz.

If Mitchell was looking like the leading man in yesterday's early reviews, there was less agreement on the performances of the character actors and inge'nues, not to mention the heroes and villains, in a spectacle that Squier called "a sort of acting out, like Japanese Kabuki theater, in which everybody's lips moved as all of these people testified."

Stone, for one, liked Rep. James Courter (R-N.J.), a sometime client who "reminded some people of the young Richard Nixon during the Hiss hearings."

He added that Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) "clearly comes out as one of the stars of the hearings. He was feisty, he was combative and he was articulate." On the other hand, Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) "hurt himself," Stone said. "He was so busy grasping for the memorable phrase and playing the prosecutor that he forgot about his constituents at home."

"Paul Trible tried to be Everyman," Stone said. "He was riding with the hounds when he thought the hounds were up and riding with the hares when he thought the hares were up. I hear a lot of grumbling among Virginia Republicans."

"I thought {Sen. Orrin} Hatch {R-Utah} was excellent," he added. "Succinct and to the point and he knew what he was doing."

Another Stone -- the liberal pundit I.F. -- praised many, calling the panel "a marvelous panorama of the American melting pot ... There was that wonderful country lawyer {Rep.} Ed Jenkins {D-Ga.}. And slow-moving Sen. {Howell} Heflin {D-Ala.}, but very incisive. And the two remarkable senators from Maine -- one half-Jewish, the other half-Lebanese, both showed marvelous sophistication and acuity. {Reps.} Dante Fascell {D-Fla.} and Louie Stokes {D-Ohio} and Peter Rodino {D-N.J.} -- these were the products of our great melting pot. And {Sen.} Sam Nunn {D-Ga.} made a good contribution.

"Inouye and {Rep.} Lee Hamilton {D-Ind.} deserve Oscars in this affair. They comported themselves with statesmanlike dignity. Reagan's not the only good actor in public life." Stone dismissed Hatch, meanwhile, as "a great smoothie."

Mankiewicz hated Hyde. "His agenda was to make speeches about policy rather than pursue what happened in practice. It got to be distracting and finally aggravating."

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. liked the "sensible" House Chairman Hamilton, who "imparted a moral quality to the proceedings," and heaped praise on Jenkins, who was "rather good," and Stokes, who was "penetrating."

"I don't mind Henry Hyde," Schlesinger said, calling him "an old pro" who "at least had a genial sense of humor." But he was withering on the subject of Hatch. "I find his interpretations unimpressive."

Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) "was terrific," Mankiewicz said. "He got to the heart of the matter where nobody else would, when Brooks said to North, 'If you didn't do anything wrong, why did you want immunity?' If anybody had been listening."

Nackey Loeb, publisher of the Manchester (N.H.) Union Leader, hated Brooks, who "has been in my craw," she said. "He behaved in what I would call a vulgar fashion. You don't sit there and tell somebody he's despicable and not worth his job ... Somebody with manners like that wouldn't be invited back to any party that I gave."

She was similarly disenchanted with her very own Sen. Rudman, who "is much more interested in Warren Rudman and less interested in matters of importance to the nation."

University of Alabama history Prof. Forrest McDonald remembered Brooks as "that clown from Texas -- absolutely outlandish. Absurd." Sen. William Cohen (R-Maine) "made some kind of a strong impression on me," McDonald said, "but to tell you the truth, I've forgotten what it was."

The hearings, Mankiewicz conceded, "never really got quite as interesting as Watergate. What this thing lacked was a Nixon."

"Hamilton was the number two guy -- unflappable," he added. "The hero's best friend." The hero in the case was Inouye, who lost an arm in combat during World War II. "I'm into minimalism," Mankiewicz said, "and I thought the high point of the hearings came on the second day of Ollie North's testimony, when Inouye wore a replica Silver Star in his lapel. In the movie, the camera would have moved in on that just very quickly."

Speaking of minimalism, there was the cameo turn of Rep. Les Aspin (D-Wis.), who was seldom seen during the committees' deliberations. "His performance in the past has been marred by his taking more than one side on an issue," Mankiewicz said. "I guess now he figured he'd balance it by not taking any side."

"Les Aspin you can have for your birthday," scoffed working-class philosopher Studs Terkel, using one of those insults apparently peculiar to Chicago.

Terkel found the whole show "very depressing," what with the ascension of Ollie North and the contras. "No one did well by themselves and no one's political career was ruined. To some extent, these hearings were meaningless."