NEW YORK, SEPT. 20 -- The Roman Catholic Archdiocese here says it will move to evict a local theater group if it continues performing a play about a drunken cardinal who kills a pregnant parishioner.

The performance company, an avant-garde Lower East Side ensemble called the Rapp Theater Company, has been leasing its theater -- a former parochial school -- from the church since 1986. Theater company owners vowed today that they would risk an eviction and present the show again this weekend.

The play, "The Cardinal Detoxes," opened two weeks ago. It is a 35-minute monologue by a character named Archbishop Flynn who has been sent by the church to a detoxification center.

Desperate to avoid prosecution for a drunken driving incident that caused a fatality, he raves that if the church does not help get his charges dropped, he will paint an ugly public picture about its policies on abortion, homosexuality and AIDS, among other issues.

During the monologue he denounces what he considers the hypocrisy of the church, calls Catholicism a way of "bringing up men to be men, women to be slaves, and priests to be their overseers." Abortion, he says, "is the cause to knit our ever fewer faithful."

The church says the issue is a landlord-tenant dispute, not censorship.

"We have a clear lease agreement with the folks who run the Rapp Arts Center," said Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the archdiocese. "We are a religious institution, and there are certain standards which we must uphold." The lease states that the landlord is a Roman Catholic church, which is "subject to the religious and moral principles and directives of the archdiocese of New York."

The play, written by Thomas M. Disch, a popular science fiction author and the theater critic of the Nation, appeared briefly at the Arts Center earlier this spring without incident or complaint from the church.

Zwilling said that nobody from the diocese has seen the production, but that church officials have read the script and found it offensive.

The unfolding episode mimics with uncanny accuracy the plot of the recently released film "Jesus of Montreal," in which an avant-garde theater group vows to continue its performances in a Montreal church, despite the local archdiocese's insistence that its play is blasphemous.

Rapp's artistic director said today that the play will appear as scheduled on Friday and Saturday, and that next week he hoped to expand the number of performances.

"I couldn't live with myself if I rejected this powerful play solely on the basis of who my landlord is," said R. Jeffrey Cohen. "It would be the worst kind of self-censorship. This is an important work. It is not profane, merely critical."

Cohen said he tried to negotiate a different wording to the lease in 1986 when the church offered him the space on East Fourth Street. "They said we couldn't alter the lease," Cohen said in an interview. "But they knew what kind of work we did and they assured us we would have no problems."

The company has many times in the past presented the work of musicians and performance artists who have created controversy, including Karen Finley, whose work has been criticized as lewd and offensive, and who was denied a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts.

The church owns vast amounts of property in New York, but officials here say this is the first time they have ever threatened a tenant with eviction because of its moral conduct. They claim the lease unambiguously prohibits sacrilege and obscenity, and that the play was a clear violation.

"Even their own description of the play makes you wonder," said Zwilling. "In an advertisement in the Village Voice, the copy says, 'George McGrath re-creates his tour-de-force {portrayal in Tom Disch's powerful} indictment of the Catholic Church." The ad goes on to say that tickets cost $8, but that people who "dress like the clergy get in free."

"I don't understand why they act this way," said author Disch. "Half of the Catholic laity would identify with these themes. But we couldn't pay a publicist for better advertising. The church is always so foolishly trying to trounce the least bit of criticism that it receives. You hand them a mirror, and their instant reaction is to smash it."