Dinner theater is often the worst of both worlds: it's as if the food were prepared by a set designer and the cast drafted from the waiters' union. A unique production called "Tamara" could change that.

"Tamara" premiered in Toronto and has been running for nearly four years in Los Angeles. Now it has opened in New York, and this already bizarre form of theater has taken on some new Manhattan twists.

Rather than being staged in an ordinary theater, "Tamara" plays throughout three floors of the Park Avenue Armory. In Los Angeles it is performed in an American Legion hall. Ten characters cavort, scheme, love, kill and otherwise interact throughout the building -- which is decorated like an Italian villa -- and the audience races after them to keep up with the action. After an hour there is a break for dinner, and afterwards dessert and coffee with the cast. This is dinner theater combined with aerobics. Even the tickets warn theatergoers to wear comfortable shoes.

The Park Avenue Armory is larger than the other "Tamara" locations have been, so the dialogue had to be stretched to cover more travel time between encounters. With up to 200 people in the audience, the rooms get so crowded that some have a hard time hearing or seeing. Jockeying for space can get ... spirited. Some of the audience are so bold they occupy the characters' chairs and have to be ousted by ad-libbing actors.

The food is drawing as much attention as the drama. New York is a city where chefs have star status. Frederick Rolf and Anna Katarina, two of the play's stars, may not be household names, but Le Cirque restaurant is, and its new chef, Daniel Boulud, is becoming one. So they were drafted to star in the culinary part of this dinner theater. "A Hearty Country Buffet Presented by Le Cirque," boasts the program.

How did a major restaurant like Le Cirque, whose dining room is probably sold out more often than most plays, get into the dinner-theater business? "It is an Italian thing," said Sirio Maccioni, who runs Le Cirque. "These people, they played on my sentiment." At first he said no, then they explained that all they wanted was the restaurant's recipes for curried chicken salad and cre`me brule'e, and besides the play is just on the next block from the restaurant. So Le Cirque lent its recipes, its name, and occasional supervision. The meal is actually catered by a company called Remember Basil.

If it sounds a cut above the usual dinner theater, it certainly is. But so is the price; tickets run $85 to $135. And with that you have to wait in a line of about 100 people to get your dinner, then cadge a seat somewhere, perhaps on the staircase, since there are no dining tables and chairs. Dessert also requires a bit of a struggle. What you don't have to compete for are drinks, and Perrier Jouet champagne flows freely.

In all, the buffet dinner of all cold food is a good one, but not stellar. The chicken curry salad is an easy recipe you can make better at home by taking care that the chicken isn't cooked to toughness. The cold rare filet of beef is the star of the meal, and could hold its own with just the champagne for a grand dinner. But otherwise the side dishes are insipid -- a gummy bland pasta primavera salad and defrosted green beans with soggy almonds. Thank goodness for Le Cirque's cre`me brule'e to provide a happy ending to the play and the meal.

Tabletalk

In case you have wondered what makes a great waiter, here is an example: At the Carnegie Deli in New York a diner was ordering a $12 brisket platter, but the waiter advised him to order instead the $7.45 sandwich, which is as big as a platter. "Don't eat the bread. You'll save yourself $5," suggested the waiter.

No wonder they call it haute cuisine. The price this season for a two-day French cooking class is running as high as $1,270. That's for Parisian top-honcho Joel Robuchon at California's Robert Mondavi Winery as part of its Great Chefs series. It includes room with fireplace and meals. Robuchon will actually teach for five days, April 5-10, and the five-day course is a relative bargain: $3,100. Other weeks the classes will feature (at varying prices) Marcella Hazan, March 25-27; Gilbert LeCoze, Nov. 11-13; Anne Rosenzweig, June 4-5; John Sedlar, Oct. 8-9; and Joyce Goldstein Dec., 3-4. For more information write Robert Mondavi Winery, P.O. Box 106, Oakville, Ca. 94562.

SALADE DE VOLAILLE AU CURRY "LE CIRQUE" (Daniel Boulud's Chicken Curry Salad "Le Cirque") (4 servings)

3 boneless, skinless breasts of capon (about 2 1/2 pounds)

Butter or oil

FOR THE SAUCE:

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

2 tablespoons cre`me frai~che

1 tablespoon dijon mustard

1 tablespoon diced mango

2 tablespoons curry powder and 2 tablespoons boiling water, mixed

5 drops hot pepper sauce

Pinch salt

FOR THE GARNISH:

Peanuts, grated coconut, sliced bananas, diced apple, diced string beans, diced tomatoes, diced red onions, minced red pepper, dried raisins, fresh peas, cre`me frai~che, mango chunks

Brush capon breasts with oil or butter, arrange in a pan and roast at 350 degrees for about 20 to 25 minutes, basting twice. When they are lightly colored and just cooked through, remove and let cool.

Make the sauce by stirring together all the ingredients listed.

Cut the chicken in small, finger-size sticks (about 2 inches long). Mix the chicken with the sauce. Serve garnishes in separate cups.

Variation: serve the salad over a bed of greens, such as arugula, radishes, lettuce, etc.