IF YOU PAY close attention, we may be able to sort out those theatrical awards that flutter so confusingly each springtime.

* The Tony, to be seen on CBS from New York tonight at 9, is the Broadway equivalent of the Hollywood Oscar and usually its superior on television. It is voted on by 650 professionally recognized persons associated with theater arts and crafts. Limited to Broadway productions, it is presented by the League of New York Theaters, the association of producers and managers, and has become the nation's most widely recognized seal of endorsement for matters theatrical.

* The Pulitzer Prize, the oldest, most prestigious and most erratic of the awards, goes to an "original play preferably dealing with American life." This was added in 1916 to the journalism and literary prizes founded by Joseph Pulitzer in 1903. As it turned out, no one liked the 1916 offerings enough to make an award, so it began with the next year's "Why Marry?" by the now-forgotten Jesse Lynch Williams. The trustees of Columbia University hold the ultimate responsibility for the prize through an advisory board, which usually, but not always, accepts the advice of three jurors who are professional critics. In recent years two of these jurors have been based in New York, one elsewhere.

* The New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, chosen by professional critics of the major New York magazines and newspapers, was founded in 1927. But its first award came a decade later, inspired by its members' dissatisfaction with the Pulitzer choice for the '34-'35 season, which was a critically scorned drama by Zoe Akins, "The Old Maid." That prize ignored such other works of that season as Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour," Maxwell Anderson's "Valley Forge," Robert E. Sherwood's "The Petrified Forest" and Clifford Odets' "Awake and Sing." The Critics Circle's first salute, for the '35-'36 season, went to Anderson's "Winterset," while the Pulitzer was awarded to Sherwood's "Idiot's Delight."

* The Obies are the awards for off-Broadway productions, sponsored by The Village Voice, and its jurors usually extend their recognition to off-off-Broadway as well. They are voted by a committee of seven, sometimes more, sometimes fewer, drawn from Voice critics and others whose opinions are not expected to be reactionary.

* The Drama Desk awards are chosen by reporters and editors, as distinguished from critics, of the New York press and go to much the same categories as those of the Tony.

There are, heaven help us, other awards, but those are the ones appearing most frequently in the billboards and playbills.

To complicate matters, many awards have different deadlines, so something that got the Critics Circle nod one year may not be eligible the same season for the Pulitzer because it opened after the earlier Pulitzer deadline. Nor is the Critics Circle winner assured of copping the Pulitzer the next season.

You will have noted that many of these honors are chosen by the New York theater critics. The reason for this is clear: they are the only people who have the time and the free tickets to see everything.

So here is where things get wildly confusing because it's perfectly possible that particular critics may serve concurrently on the Tony, Pulitzer, Critics Circle and even some other committees.

Add to this the fact that by the nature of their work--personal opinion--all critics view the taste of all other critics as unreliable, vicious, dictatorial, stupid or just plain crazy.

The result is that, for all the surface politesse, there are cabals of political maneuvering within these groups that, in the relative secrecy of balloting rooms, can spill out in long-remembered vituperations.

Such is the background for the astonishment that greeted the news that the nominating committee for this year's Tony honors had failed to cast enough votes to get Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" on the ballot for the 650 voters. Most of the 14 nominators seemed to be on the record as admiring the Simon play and none confessed to having ignored it. The accounting firm Lutz and Carr, which places the winners' names in the sealed envelopes, was surprised enough to count over.

The rule for the nominators is that they must vote for four in each of the 19 Tony categories, giving four votes for their top choice, three for the second, two for their third and one for their fourth. The outcome suggests that some of those voters didn't even give the Simon play one vote. And Tony rules forbid write-in ballots. Simon was thus blocked from the year's top Tony honor, which many had expected him to win.

To confuse the public even more, two days later it was annouced that the New York Drama Critics Circle had chosen "Brighton Beach Memoirs" as the best play of the year. This came a month after the Pulitzer had declared that Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother" was the best.

Here is where one perceives the shadows of a cabal. For at least two of the three Pulitzer jurors (who, according to the rules, must remain anonymous), and some of their acolytes put the Norman play in the lead on the Critics Circle first ballot as well, but not strongly enough to command the total of 25 points needed to win. Several succeeding ballots produced an ingenious resolution by the New York Post's Clive Barnes, the Christian Science Monitor's John Beaufort and Time's Ted Kalem, who didn't want " 'night, Mother" to win. They reportedly removed it from their lists altogether, substituting the two most scorned productions of the season, "Moose Murders" and "Private Lives."

This had the effect of cutting down the Norman play's total, upping Simon's to top spot. In this case, the ill wind of the Tony had the effect of at last giving America's most popular playwright his first nod from the Critics Circle. He's not yet won a Tony or a Pulitzer.

Nor was the Simon slur the nominators' only surprising omission. When it came to that ever-widening category, "Outstanding reproduction of a play or musical," ignored was a revival everyone had gone into ecstasies about, "You Can't Take It With You." "Show Boat" also was passed over. A fine play but flawed in performance, the unimpressive revival of "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial" did make the ballot.

The Tony, named for director Antoinette Perry, founder of the wartime American Theater Wing, is the most sought-after of all the theater awards because it is chosen not by a small circle but by a nominee's professional peers--actors, actresses, writers, directors, composers, lyricists, choreographers, designers and producers, with just a smattering of critics--much in the way the film crafts vote for Oscars. The theater world is a small one and the leaders are mostly familiar with their peers' work.

At all events, during the next few weeks, the League of New York Theaters will be reconsidering the whole nomination procedure and it is likely that for next season changes will be made.

Tonight's major winner is likely to be Trevor Nunn, who not only staged "Cats," the musical favored to win, but also is up as director of a straight play, the Royal Shakespeare Company's "All's Well That Ends Well." Voters were exasperated last year when the RSC's "Nicholas Nickleby" copped top honors. Will it be twice in a row for the Brits? Remember, it was in the Oscars ("Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi").

Had Arena Stage's "K-2" been taken intact to Broadway, it might have had some chance. As it is, only one of the two actors--Jeffrey de Munn--has been nominated. The importers missed a lot by not picking up Stanley Anderson and Stephen McHattie from the Arena cast.

And if enough voters got to see her, Jessica Tandy will surely win as top actress for her evanescent old lady of "Foxfire."

Perhaps a sidelight of the theater's paucity of ideas is the contrast with the technical categories, where the talent is obvious and overwhelming. Scenic designs for "All's Well," "K-2," "Foxfire" and "Cats," by John Gunter, Ming Cho Lee, David Mitchell and John Napier, respectively, are all superlative and the same can be said for those productions' similarly nominated lighting. And there may be sharp rivalry in the costume category among Lindy Hemming, John Napier, Rita Ryack and Patricia Zipprodt for their work on, respectively, "All's Well,' "Cats," "My One and Only" and "Alice in Wonderland."

A highlight tonight will be the renaming of the theater housing the telecast. Though the ticket stubs read "Uris," in the future, they will read "Gershwin," replacing the builders' name with the name of two brothers who meant so much to American musical theater. If you doubt it, see the Kennedy Center's "Porgy and Bess."