NEW YORK -- Joel Grey was 34 when he first burst from the darkness -- a sneer on his lips, a smear of brick red over each eye, his slicked-back hair as shiny as patent leather -- and welcomed the audience to the Kit Kat Klub. As the seedy emcee in "Cabaret," Broadway's musical sensation of 1966, he was an instant star.

Grey won the Tony award that year for best supporting performance in a musical. Six years later, when Hollywood finally got around to filming "Cabaret," he was up to his old sleazy tricks, marking Germany's inevitable descent into fascism with a slashing grin, a lascivious wink and a high kick. That time, he walked away with the Oscar for best supporting actor.

Now Grey is 55 and once again he's taking to the stage nightly as the master of poisonous revels in a Broadway-bound revival of "Cabaret" that previews tonight in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

There's one quick way to get on his bad side, or at least throw a cloud over the puckish aura that, despite his thinning hair and the fine wrinkles around the eyes, continues to make him look half his age: Bring up the name of Yul Brynner.

Brynner spent so much of his acting career as the King in "The King and I" that the identification of actor and role was total. The public could see him as no one else, didn't want to. Revival followed revival in a seemingly endless succession of "farewell" performances.

"Look," says Grey, mildly piqued. "This is a role I played for one year, 21 years ago. I spent three months making the film. Sure, the first big thing you do sticks with you and that's always been slightly inhibiting. But it's only made me try that much harder at what I'm supposed to do -- which is to play characters, grow and do interesting work.

"I'm going to do this part for a year, a year and a half at the most, then get on with the rest of my career. But don't expect to see me in this show for the next three, five, 10 years, because I can promise you that you won't."

He pauses.

"Maybe in 15 years ... if 'Cabaret' still proves interesting and there's a reason to bring it back ... maybe then I might think about it."

You don't give up your claim on one of the great parts of the American musical theater that easily. Ask Carol Channing.

Grey is tucked away in a nook of a fashionable West Side restaurant on a 48-hour break from the tour that began last February in Wilmington. He flew in from the West Coast the night before to attend the New York premiere of "Dirty Dancing," in which his 27-year-old daughter, Jennifer Grey, establishes herself as a hot Hollywood property. He also wanted to check up on his New York apartment, which is undergoing renovations and currently looks like "Dresden after the war."

Grey loves New York, its hustle, its ever-renewable surprise, the young girls in their summer dresses and the hot dog vendor at the end of the street. Not for him Beverly Hills, where life is all of a piece. New York is a crazy jigsaw puzzle and he likes trying to figure out the city and his place in it.

"Lately, I've felt a very strong impulse -- clear and direct -- to be on the Broadway stage again," he is saying as he attacks a salade nicoise. (His last appearance on the main stem was in Jerry Herman's 1979 musical, "The Grand Tour," a 61-performance flop.) "I am concerned about the musical theater, selfishly, because I love it. I don't like to bad-mouth other shows, but I was very disturbed after seeing 'Starlight Express.' It had very little to do with musical comedy as I know it. It had to do with sound and spectacle and records and technology and amplification. I got scared thinking, 'If this takes over, something special will be lost.'

"I'm always interested in the challenge of doing something new. If there had been a brand new musical, as rich as 'Cabaret,' I would have done it. But 'Cabaret' seemed to be the best material for me at this particular time and as pertinent as ever. I really believe that. It's a show about the denial of what's really going on and people's inability to come to grips with it. I think everybody feels very helpless in this world right now. The American people have shown their confidence in our government is severely shaken. They're afraid of terrorists, an epidemic."

Grey will take the analogy only so far, but he notes that we have a president who, like the emcee, promises prosperity and good times and assures us things are going swimmingly, all while we seem to be edging up on the abyss. The White House has asked Grey to entertain twice -- once under the Ford administration, once under Reagan. Both times, he was requested to sing "Wilkommen" from "Cabaret." Both times, the guest of honor was a chancellor of West Germany. There's a savory irony there for those who care to look.

"I was in Paris nine months ago, just after those department store bombings," Grey says. "I went anyway. I'd been invited to a screening and I don't spend my life worrying about that stuff. Anyway, after the screening, there was a party. The streets were totally empty. It was creepy. And then I walked into the reception, and all these people were standing on the bar, drinking champagne from shoes. The music was blaring. I was chilled. It's like what we're talking about in 'Cabaret.' "

Grey takes pains to point out he is not merely reviving a performance, but reexamining it in the light of two decades of living. His longtime marriage to former actress Jo Wilder dissolved five years ago. His two children are grown, out on their own and doing nicely. He's had his share of sobering flops, along with the heady triumphs. All that has to make a difference.

"I think the biggest difference," he says, "is that there was a buoyancy, almost a naivete', about the character of the emcee the first time. I saw him slipping over the edge with Sally Bowles at the end. Now I see him as much darker and more effective -- a survivor. I didn't know a lot then. Really, none of us knew a lot. We had a sense of the period, we'd looked at pictures and {Lotte} Lenya was there. But what did I know from Germany in the 1930s? Somehow we got it kind of right, or at least right enough for the moment.

"This time, however, I've given him a much more detailed emotional life and have come to look on him as if he were the central character in a Gu nter Grass novel, not just a musical device. I'm very specific. I think more about complexities and why this guy, sort of Archie Rice's second-cousin, is the kind of man and the kind of entertainer he is. I've always detested these second-rate performers I end up portraying. It's terrifying to find out I know so much about them. But that imaginary life makes it cook for me every night."

By way of example, he cites a moment in "Cabaret" when the emcee dons drag and joins the girls in the kick-line. It is indicative of Grey's approach to the show this time that even this passing characterization has a history. "As I get dressed and put on the wig, she comes out, and boy is she murder -- the toughest broad you ever saw in your life," he says. "She has a beauty mark on her chin. Her name is Betti. She thinks all the other girls are cows, and people dwell in mortal fear of her backstage. I take no responsibility for her words or her actions. To me, she feels like a character Lily Tomlin might create."

His eyes are twinkling merrily with the perverseness of it all. It seems to be Grey's fate to project a scampish glee even in middle age. If he invariably suggests a pixie on a rampage, this pixie has long since learned that, whatever mischief he perpetrates, he will be forgiven. Call it the flip side of the Napoleon complex -- power through puppy-dog charm, or how to soil the carpet and get away with it.

"I feel a spark in this particular production, an urgency, maybe because so much more is demanded," he says. "Oh, the aches and the pains! I was reading about Gary Carter the other day and how he is bandaged up like a gladiator to go out and play ball. And he's in perfect shape. I had a bandage on my knees 21 years ago. You can imagine what it is now."

During the Philadelphia engagement, in fact, Grey burst a blood vessel in his throat. For three weeks he couldn't use his voice. He carried on anyway -- miming the role while his understudy, seated in the pit, sang the songs into a mike.

"It turned out it was a freak accident," Grey says. "It could have happened coughing or sneezing or clearing your throat. At first, the doctors told me I was going to be 10 weeks healing. And I thought, 'Maybe, I'll never be able to perform again the way I used to.' It was one of life's little left turns that really give you pause -- a scary, powerful, reflective time for me. Since then, it's like something has refreshed my voice. It's stronger than before. But for a while I wasn't certain I'd recover."

The strange sense of disembodiment he experienced -- moving voicelessly, almost surrealistically, through the show -- has also fed into his performance, enriching it. "I'm in some kind of nether world now when I work -- knowing the frame and the structure, but also knowing how much I don't know and allowing myself to exist in a state of danger for a couple of hours."

That, too, he points out, is what "Cabaret" is all about.

Grey prefers to see himself as a character actor these days and prides himself on the range of the roles he's played. In the movies, he's been a 75-year-old Korean Zen master ("Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins ..."); an eccentric clairvoyant ("Man on a Swing"); and a sniveling, petty criminal ("The Seven Percent Solution"). Off-Broadway, he's done plays by Chekhov and John Guare and, mid-run, took over the lead in Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" as a crusading homosexual struggling to awaken the world to the dangers of AIDS. He says that Peter Brook, the revolutionary British director, approached him to join the American tour of "The Mahabharata," a nine-hour Hindu epic that has already taken Europe's intelligentsia by storm, but it conflicted with "Cabaret."

For the American public, however, Grey remains the quintessential song-and-dance man, parading his stuff along the footlights and making up in spunk what at 5 feet 2 he lacks in cubits. When Broadway went looking for someone to play George M. Cohan in "George M!," it didn't look far. Grey came up with a second Tony as the Yankee Doodle Dandy.

"I'll go anywhere and do anything I think is different. It's just that some of my best work has been done off-Broadway or in films that didn't succeed. Before 'Man on a Swing' opened, my performance was being touted as another award-winning piece of work. And it was good. It was. It was really all right. But that movie was dumped by Paramount, along with Francis Ford Coppola's 'The Conversation,' in order to put more focus on 'The Great Gatsby.' So it didn't get seen. Well, you can be taking two steps forward as an actor, but if a movie doesn't make money, you might as well be taking two steps backwards. It's all about economics."

Grey's role models, as a child growing up in Cleveland, were not the fabled stars of musical comedy, but Laurence Olivier, Peter Lorre, Charlie Chaplin. He made his acting debut at age 9 at the Cleveland Playhouse in Paul Osborne's gentle drama "On Borrowed Time." Grey's father was Mickey Katz, a popular comic musician and song parodist, who became a star as a Yiddish Spike Jones and later toured the country for two decades in a show called "Borscht Capades." But singing, dancing and cutting up were the furthest thing from young Grey's mind.

"Here's a clue," he says. "When I was 8 or 9, my parents or my fellow actors at the playhouse -- I don't remember which -- gave me a fishing tackle box with the masks of comedy and tragedy painted on it. It was crammed with every possible kind of makeup, including crepe hair. I wanted to use it all. I still do. I still get that same charge when I sit down at the makeup table. It's like painting. You don't know exactly where your hands are going to take you. Then a very primitive thing happens to you: You see yourself going away and another person emerging."

At age 16, he reluctantly joined his father's show. "I really didn't want to do any of that," he says. "Then at 19, I learned this song by rote in Yiddish. It was called 'Romania, Romania' and I had a success with it. It was a fluke. I was a hit in nightclubs, but it was horrible. I couldn't get a job as an actor afterwards. All I wanted to do was be on the stage."

It wasn't until the mid-1950s that Grey rebelled against his parents, quit the nightclub circuit and emigrated to New York to study acting. He made his New York debut in the Ogden Nash-Vernon Duke revue, "The Littlest Show," to appreciative reviews. For a while, however, he seemed destined to be part of Broadway's permanent second string -- replacing Anthony Newley in "Stop the World, I Want to Get Off," then taking over for Tommy Steele in "Half a Sixpence."

Overnight, "Cabaret" changed that. The emcee's role was originally 15 minutes long. But as Grey, drawing on his experience in tawdry nightclubs, worked on it with director Hal Prince and author Joe Masteroff, it grew in size and Mephistophelean impact. Although he had very few spoken lines, Grey brought an actor's sensibility to the songs and his evolution from the cheesy entertainer who opens the show to the grimacing herald of death who closes it, was acting of a high order.

Work is very much on Grey's mind these days. It's what energizes him and, one gathers, gives him some solace for the breakup of his family life. "I certainly didn't expect my marriage to come undone," he says. "My parents were married almost 50 years. My younger brother has been married almost 30. I believe in commitment. Those values are very much at the center of who I am. But there is an up side to divorce, which I never thought there could be.

"I didn't pursue my work with the vigor and focus that I do now. I was a husband and father then, so I'd rush home from the theater, divesting myself of the work on the way so I could play my other role. No one did it to me. It was by my own choice. But I was distracted by family stuff. I didn't get the charge out of acting that I'm getting now. There's a lot more risk to my performing now and tremendous exhilaration."

There is, too, the satisfaction of seeing his daughter make his a three-generation show business family. "It's a disgusting title, 'Dirty Dancing,' " he laughs. "But it's a fun film and Jennifer is lovely in it. It all seemed natural and right to me, when I saw it the other night. She's brought a lot of who she is to the role, and I liked that. I like her.

"I've never pushed her; as a matter of fact, I actively tried to dissuade her from going into the theater when she was a youngster and insisted that she wait until she graduated from high school. As a result of my attitude, she went about doing it all on her own. So now she can take all the pleasure and the credit.

"I can tell you, my mother has gone crazy. She's on the phone 24 hours a day. I'm glad because it's about Jennifer, not about me for a change, thank you very much. I owe my daughter a great deal."

Here's another clue. Grey is strolling jauntily down a fashionable West Side street toward Central Park. He is asked how he happened to choose Grey as a stage name. He makes a gesture with his right hand, as if he were snatching at a passing butterfly. "Like that," he explains. "I plucked it out of the air."

He walks half a block before adding, "But you know, it has proved fortuitous. As an actor, that's what I'm interested in. Not black and white, but the mysterious, ambivalent area in between. Grey. It's the richest kind of acting. It's what I aspire to."