TO SAY WASHINGTON theater has made the big time may be a little premature, but it certainly is on its way -- and in style, as evidenced by Monday's benefit party at Herb's restaurant to honor 14th Street theaters and the reopening of a favorite hangout for artists.

Producers, directors, actors, technicians and theatergoers packed both floors of the restaurant. Attendance was an estimated 650 people.

The festive and friendly crowd -- dressed in everything from jeans and tweed to sequins and turbans -- ate (crab, prime rib and crudite's), drank (open bar) and danced (to the big band beat of Doc Scantlin and His Imperial Palms Orchestra) until well past midnight, raising $10,500. The proceeds for the night will be shared by seven theaters -- Woolly Mammoth, Source, Moving Target, Living Stage, Javarama, New Playwrights' and Studio -- now neighbors on the 14th Street strip.

"It used to be that we had to struggle to get even 50 people to come to events like this," said Linda Reinisch, managing director of Woolly Mammoth. "To get all these people here says something about theater's growth, and that's exciting."

Source executive director Pat Sheehy remembered the more dangerous 14th Street when Source -- the first theater to lay roots there -- arrived. "We felt like pioneers, and now I think we've all created a real neighborhood," she said. "Everyone said we could never get people to come up there at night, but they do now."

Long-time Washington actress Michaeleen O'Neill, now appearing in Source's "Safe Sex," got a little more serious, though. "It's great to recognize our progress, and all these people are an incredible sign," she said. "But it's a real shame that most actors in D.C. can't be employed full-time as actors."

The festivities cost restaurant owner and perennial arts patron Herb White, who single-handedly underwrote the event, $8,000.

The cast of Source Theater's "The Nature and Purpose of the Universe" may just be the best-rehearsed troupe in town.

The show, a wicked comedy by Christopher Durang, returns Friday to the Warehouse Rep for an extended run on Fridays and Saturdays at 11 p.m., for a bring-your-own kind of crowd; it comes out long after the other Source shows have gone to bed.

And here's the rub: "Nature and Purpose" has to share a set with whatever production Source has going. When the show opened, "Golden Boy" was playing, so director Jim Stone staged a play that used a spare simple set, "which was kind of ideal for what we wanted," Stone says.

But after "Golden Boy" closed, Source began setting up for Harvey Fierstein's "Safe Sex," and Stone and his actors had to reblock the show once for the new lighting design and then again for a new multi-level set.

"It was frustrating at first to give up some of the things I'd done," Stone says. "But actually this set is a lot more compact, so some of the violence seems to have more impact. It wasn't as much work as I feared it would be, and the actors have all been great about coming to rehearse at all hours of the day and night."

"Nature and Purpose" is slated to run through February 13 when "Safe Sex" ends its run. But who knows? If it's a hit again, Stone and company may find themselves taking it from the top one more time. "I don't know if anybody's really interested in staging it again," Stone laughs.

Bulletin Board: Cherry Adler, executive director of the Library Theater, was honored as one of the 16 recipients of the "Washingtonian of the Year" award given by Washingtonian magazine. Eighteen years ago Adler founded the group, which stages original musical comedies based on children's literature at area schools and libraries. In 1987, the Library Theater gave 500 performances for 156,000 children. . . . On Monday, the League of Washington Theaters will honor James C. Nicola, who is departing Arena Stage as producing associate for a job in New York City. Nicola will be fe~ted at the Arts Club of Washington for "outstanding service to the theater community" . . . Martha Clarke's "The Garden of Earthly Delights," a theatrical realization of Hieronymous Bosch's hallucinatory painting, comes to the Warner Theater February 4 through 6 . . . And Ford's Theatre will put on a gala preview performance of the new work, "Elmer Gantry," to honor trustees and major supporters on February 18. The theater has commissioned the musical, based on Sinclair Lewis' Pulitzer Prize- winning novel, to celebrate the restored theater's 20th anniversary and the 125th of the original opening.