NEW YORK HAS Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway, but in Washington the divisions are harder to come by.

While there's no difficulty identifying one end of the spectrum -- the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, National Theatre end -- as "professional," what do you call the others? Groups like Source and New Playwrights, Pro Femina, Woolly Mammoth, Studio Theatre, The Rep and G.A.L.A.?

Off-Off-Kennedy Center really doesn't do it, and most of the other terms -- experimental theaters, fringe theaters, small theaters -- usually elicit indignant protests on the part of the very groups in question. Experimental, they say, implies inaccessible. Fringe says flaky. And small, by simply not being big, means unsuccessful. Whatever the generic term, it seems to summon up notions of marginality. And that is precisely what the directors and actors and designers in question resent. Here they are expending considerable time and energy, often for little financial reward, and they are being told that their efforts are, in essence, minor. Who wouldn't lodge at least a semantic protest?

It is entirely possible, however, that the indignation is misdirected. In today's theatrical climate "marginal" may be a much stronger term than we suspect. It may even indicate a theatrical course worth pursuing. Marginal doesn't necessarily mean expendable. The dictionary defines it as "occupying the borderland of a relatively stable territorial or cultural area." And, frankly, that's just where most of our smaller theaters should want to set down roots.

The thought occurred to me the other night after a performance of "Bent," Martin Sherman's play at the Source Theater about the persecution of the homosexual minority in Nazi Germany. As you might expect, it is a harrowing play about a subject many people would consider unsavory at best. It contains male nudity, brutal language, simulated acts of sex and torture -- any one of which can send some spectators scuttling from the hall in protest.

On the other hand, this may be one of the best productions Source has put together in a couple of seasons. Directed with commendable taste, acted with persuasion, it makes some strong dramatic points, at the same time serving as a bold cautionary tale for the future. It doesn't speak exclusively to gay audiences, although a certain open-mindedness is surely required of those who do attend. To assume that "Bent" could pull a broad popular audience, however, is asking too much of it. It is a powerful play with a limited constituency.

Such plays -- intensely meaningful to some, not all -- have a hard time getting performed in this city. The Kennedy Center, for one, can't be bothered. It simply has to cast a wider net. Its weekly expenses are formidable and its theaters must be regularly filled if those expenses are not to mount even higher. While you wouldn't go so far as to say the management has a blue nose, it is mindful of the conservative tastes and expectations of most of its customers. The Center tends not to run risks, and "Bent" at the Center would be a considerable risk.

Arena Stage might not shy away from the play -- don't forget its hard-hitting production of "Streamers" not so long ago -- but with an eight-play season, Arena is already trying to cover a lot of bases of its own. The National and the Warner are locked into touring shows, an ever-narrowing field characterized by musicals and star vehicles. Ford's is committed to family fare, and the Folger, which once pursued some audacious contemporary plays, has, under new artistic director John Neville-Andrews opted to emphasize its classical mandate.

That leaves a void, and our "small" theaters are in a good position to fill it. Because of their very smallness, they are not obliged to cultivate an across-the-board audience. They can court various dramatic interest groups, as Washington terminology would have it. A full house at Source means that precisely 49 seats are filled nightly (versus 1,110 in the Eisenhower and more than double that in the Opera House). There's been no trouble finding that many interested spectators for "Bent," which has even extended its run six weeks until April 3. Is it pie-in-the-sky thinking to imagine that there are also 49 people in this city on any given night who might be tempted to see something by Sam Shepard? Or Thomas Babe? Or Chris Durang? Am I the only one who's waiting for a local production of "A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking?" or "Key Exchange"? Or "Coming Attractions"?

Some of our smaller theaters understand the virtues of being zealously idiosyncratic in their courtship of a limited audience. In its relatively short existence here, the Woolly Mammoth has followed a refreshingly eccentric course -- ranging from early Mark Medoff to its current Polish absurdist epic, "Vatzlav." Pro Femina quite frankly targets its original plays to the middle-class female in her thirties and forties, although anyone's welcome to drop in. The New Playwrights' Theater may be engaged in the most marginal of all operations -- the fostering of new plays. Only those who court surprises -- good or bad -- need apply at the door.

But more often than not, when the phone rings with the urgent invitation to come review the latest offering by one of the small theater groups that come and go with dismaying frequency, it is to see Chekhov or maybe Noel Coward, Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams. In short, the familiar. The hitch is not simply that the plays have already been done more than once or twice in the area, they've usually been done with a high level of professionalism. When the Studio Theater invites people to see its revival of "Romeo and Juliet," it is also inviting all kinds of comparisons -- not just with the Folger -- but with the professional touring productions that play here. And its young actors just aren't in a position to sustain those comparisons. When The Fine Line Actors Theater chooses "Private Lives," does it remember that Brian Bedford and Tammy Grimes set a high standard in the play not so long ago at the National Theatre? The Round House Theatre had a well-deserved success recently with William Gibson's out-of-the-way miracle play, "The Butterfingers Angel." But what is the rationale behind "The Three Sisters" or even "Deathtrap," which everyone else is doing, too? And for all the wisdom of chosing "Bent," let's not forget that Source also attempted "The Good Woman of Setzuan," with neither the means nor the manner that Arena brings to Brecht.

Of course, one reason -- maybe, the chief -- our small theaters get less attention than pleases them is because the performance standards are wildly erratic. Off-Off Kennedy Center doesn't have the pool of actors and directors to draw on that Off-Off Broadway does. The productions are frequently little better than makeshift. Narrowing the scope, however, would not only concentrate those limited artistic resources, but it would also allow for the elaboration of a specific identity, without which theaters, like people, get overlooked in the throng.

Back in the mid-1960s, when it was content to occupy a carriage house on O Street, the late Washington Theatre Club established an enviable reputation, doing plays by Arden, Pinter, Ionesco, and Lanford Wilson long before he'd won his Pulitzer. Then it started to grow. It moved into a larger theater (now the West End Circle movie house), acquired a sizable mortgage, dramatically expanded its subscription lists, and in a necessary attempt to keep everyone more or less happy, lost the adventurousness of its beginnings. As a marginal theater, it was a roaring success. As a mainstream, professional institution, it failed miserably.

Granted, marginality is not a popular goal these days. Theater is supposed to catch up all of us -- black, white, young, old, conservative, liberal -- in its all-enfolding embrace (although it may just be the masterpieces that do that). And certainly the grant-givers of the country, when they set about distributing their funds, look closely at a theater's audience profile. The assumption: the broader the reach, the more deserving the organization.

Maybe it would help if we started looking at "marginality" as a promise of freedom, not just rickety seats. Precisely because they are not obliged to carry the standard line of dramatic wares, our small theaters are able to make up their features in a particularly unique way, to wear the clothes that best suit their personality, to be themselves. They don't have to court Aunt Sue and the twins, a visiting fireman and a church group from the suburbs at the same time -- an obligation that leads to the bland euphoria of shows like "Little Johnny Jones." A much wider range of dramatic fare is open to them. The very marginality they rail against may, in fact, be a luxury.

Small theaters needn't be all things to all people. Just some things to some people.