"PAT ROBERTSON has been saying it was George Bush who did Jimmy Swaggart in. But I'm convinced it must have been Frankie Hewitt," jokes David Bell, director of the new musical "Elmer Gantry," which has been the recipient of a publicity godsend.

The show was originally slated to open last year, during the Jim and Tammy Bakker debacle, and people were ready for a show about lustful, greedy evangelists. It was postponed for a year due to the death of composer Stan Lebowsky, but now, with Swaggart's downfall, everyone seems interested in naughty preachers again. Ford's president Hewitt and corporate cosponsors AT&T are probably praising the Lord that the climate is so ripe.

The show's success can't be laid entirely to heavenly timing, of course. Actually, Bell started work on the show three years ago before the nation had really noticed the televangelists. The songs and orchestrations are swell, and Casey Biggs and Sharon Scruggs give soul-stirring performances as a team of Bible-thumpers selling hope in hard times. Bell filled the supporting roles with non-showbizzy, Midwestern-looking folks, "people that you don't usually find populating a musical," he says. In fact, one of the show's strongest virtues is its modesty, and one hopes that quality won't be lost if and when it moves to Broadway -- an early summer opening is being discussed.

Bell says he began the first rehearsal by handing Biggs a book on Pat Robertson and Scruggs a tome on Aimee Semple MacPherson. "I had everybody in the cast watching the Sunday morning programs. Religiously, I was about to say," says Bell. The cast also attended a few go-to-Jesus Bible meetings "to get a sense of the ecstasy in a small room and to find how willing people were to commit to going way over the top."

The show is breaking box office records, and Bell is exultant over the show's reception here. "It's real, real fun to be a hot ticket at last in Washington. And I've never had that feeling before, when suddenly you cross over and become . . . relevant."

The always-busy Bell will soon need something approaching divine intervention to keep his schedule in line: While negotiating "Gantry's" Broadway date, he's been flying to London to scout West End theaters as director/choreographer/book co-writer for "Matador," a musical based loosely on the life of El Cordobes, with music and lyrics by Brit-pop eminences Mike Leander and Eddie Seago. "Matador," heavily backed by CBS Records, looks likely for a fall opening, which will make Bell an oddity in these British-dominated days -- an American musical director opening a big show in London.

Bulletin Board: The Irish Actors Theatre Company of Dublin returns to Carroll Hall Sunday through March 12. The troupe will perform "A Touch of the Irish" and "Dublin: Cradle of Genius: 998-1988." 924 G St. NW. Call 347-1450 . . . The "Cats" crew had their backs up over an item in last week's Backstage. They say the downscaled set for the upcoming touring production of "Cats" takes a week to assemble, not 10 hours, as reported here. My apologies . . . The 100-year-old Actors' Residence at the Olney Theater has been restored and refurnished as a Decorators Show House by the Antique Dealers Association of Maryland. The 28 rooms have been named in honor of performers and playwrights who played the Olney, so you can see the Nancy Davis Reagan Parlor, the Helen Hayes Bedroom or the Ian McKellen Dressing Rooms if you visit the show house between March 12 and April 10. Proceeds benefit the Olney. Call 301/924-2654 . . . The nation's Poet Laureate, Richard Wilbur, will be honored with an evening called "The Poet in the Theater: In Celebration of the Poet Laureate." Actor Brian Bedford and members of the Arena Stage acting company will perform staged readings of Wilbur's translations of Moliere and Racine. It's free, Monday, 8 p.m. at Arena's Kreeger Theater . . .

It looks like Arlington's Wordstage Theater could read the phone book and make it into a dramatic event: The troupe's latest production, "The Farmer's Almanac Revue," which opens this Friday, is based on the 196-year-old "great bathroom reading" tradition. Call 739-2921 . . . The American Film Institute is running an international series called "Shakespeare on Film" through April 26. Included are three versions of "Hamlet," "Othello" and "King Lear" . . . Mexican playwright/actor/director Martin Zapata performs his play "Ik Dietrik Fon: Rompecabezas Para Un Solo Actor" at the World Bank Wednesday and at GALA Hispanic Theater March 13. The GALA performance will be introduced by Ignacio Duran, Minister of Cultural Affairs at the Mexican Embassy, and will be followed by a panel discussion on Latin American theater. Call 342-7089 for locations and times . . . The Kennedy Center actually wants to get junk mail: The musical "Mail" uses mounds of the stuff onstage, so if you bring some to the box office, they'll take $10 off your ticket price (except for Saturday night) . . . A number of regional theaters, including Houston Stage, Austin Paramount and San Diego's Old Glove, have been sending agents to New Playwrights' Theater to scout Larry King's "The Night Hank Williams Died" for their own productions. King says he's bushed from performing in the show every night and says he'll take the experience into consideration when writing his next one. "One thing's for sure," King says. "{If} I think I'm gonna wind up playing in it, I'm not gonna write a scene where I wind up crying and being all tender."