The panel that reviews grants to playwrights for the National Endowment for the Arts has told Chairman John Frohnmayer that it wants clarification of a congressionally imposed "decency" provision before it proceeds with its work at a Dec. 7 meeting.

The action comes in the wake of the resignation Tuesday of the 1990 literary publishing panel in protest of the provision, which calls for consideration of "general standards of decency" in awarding grants. That unprecedented mass resignation was symbolic, as the panel was not scheduled to meet again, but the gesture appears to be reverberating with members of the 1991 panels that are now reviewing applications for NEA funding.

Panelist Helaine Harris has resigned from the 1991 literary publishing panel, and reportedly more members of that group may quit. That panel is scheduled to meet at the end of this month.

The chairman is unlikely to offer any clarification on the decency language before the playwrights panel meets, according to NEA spokesman Jack Lichtenstein. "We want to be in good faith with the Congress but come up with something that's not going to stifle artistic creativity," he said. "... I anticipate the chairman will be happy to tell them that we are working on it."

So far, most of the legislative history and case law that has emerged in interpreting decency language has come from the Federal Communications Commission's efforts to banish indecent broadcasts on a 24-hour basis. The FCC has forbidden "language or material that depicts or describes in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast media, sexual or excretory activities or organs." The constitutionality of that interpretation is under attack in a case pending before the federal appeals court here. The case will be argued on Jan. 28.

Lichtenstein said the endowment is not certain how it will react if panelists refuse to proceed without written guidance. "It would just be our hope that panelists wait to see what the endowment's going to do," he said.

The endowment argues that the new legislation represents a dramatic improvement over more explicit restrictions that were being discussed on the Hill. But protests over the language appear to be mounting. Aside from the discussions among panelists, theater producer Joseph Papp has rejected two grants worth $323,000 because of the decency provision.

Panelists appear to be split over their response to the law. Some feel that resignations are an overreaction to the legislation and inappropriately punish the endowment. Among them is Jean Bellas, an architect with A. Epstein & Sons in Chicago, and chairman of the NEA's design panel, which met to review grant applications yesterday. Panel members discussed the impact of the new legislation only briefly, she said during a break in the session. "We had a very calm, rational, open discussion about the issues and moved into the task at hand."

The panel focuses on the quality of the applications and does not find interpretation of the decency language to be troublesome, Bellas said. Any concerns about that language should be addressed to Congress, she added. "We understand that the NEA is the wrong target here. It's a legislative issue."

Other panelists find the language to be troubling and are waiting for Frohnmayer to tell them explicitly that grant applications should be evaluated on the basis of artistic merit. "This is not necessarily an adversarial relationship," said Suzan Zeder, chairwoman of the playwright panel. "We're asking for clarification so we can do our job. We're not trying to make this a challenge to the chairman or the endowment."

Some were hoping that Frohnmayer would state that grants should be awarded on the basis of artistic merit in his response to Tuesday's resignations. But Frohnmayer simply pleaded for more time to evaluate the new law.

Among those who want reassurance from Frohnmayer, some are not certain they could take him at his word even if the desired promises were made. Jennifer Moyer, a publisher who resigned from the literary panel, observed that Frohnmayer had urged panelists to focus on artistic merit last year but then vetoed grants to controversial performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller and John Fleck.

"When we went in there originally, he assured us that no artistic integrity would be compromised. We believed him. Now people are gun-shy, and they should be," Moyer said. At the moment, Hughes and Finley have applications to develop solo performances pending before Frohnmayer. Two review panels have approved the applications, as has the endowment's advisory panel. Frohnmayer has not yet decided whether to veto the grants but his decision will be watched closely by panelists.

Zeder said Tuesday's resignations "elevated the temperature" of the deliberations among panel members. "I think every panelist is having to answer in their own heart and mind whether they can continue to serve," she said.