THE THEATER season on paper is rarely the one that emerges on stage. Just as blueprints can give you a notion of the house that's going up, but not the quality of the lives that will unfold within it, the announcements out of our sundry theaters provide only a sketch of what's ahead. They promise--what else?--the best season yet. But who can really tell until the scaffolding comes down and the actors move in?

What does seem apparent is that there will not be a lot of risk-taking in the months to come. The theater has always tried to strike a fair balance between the past and the future--honoring the former, while shaping the latter. New plays may not be intrinsically superior to old plays, but their presence in any season indicates the theater's faith in its ability to renew itself and its confidence in the eternal curiosity of audiences. The new play, if not exactly an endangered species, looks to be in relatively limited supply.

For whatever it says about our current psychological climate, this season's list is heavy with revivals, established hits from Broadway and old favorites. Tennessee Williams will be much in evidence, his star burning far brighter posthumously than it did during the final years of his life. While our theaters haven't necessarily sold their souls to the commercial devil, there's an underlying awareness that making ends meet is as urgent as making art. Maybe even more urgent in these times of economic jeopardy.

Expect the National to rejoin the ranks of our functioning theaters in January with the splashy "42nd Street" and then, around May, set the town scrambling with "Cats." The Folger, healthier than ever, has a solid lineup drawn from the ranks of the theater's classics, plus a traditional English pantomime in the works. Arena has orchestrated a mix of classics, off-Broadway hits and at least one sure-to-be-controversial farce, Dario Fo's free-wheeling "Accidental Death of an Anarchist."

The Kennedy Center will bring us Dustin Hoffman ("Death of a Salesman"), Elizabeth Ashley ("Agnes of God") and Lauren Bacall ("Woman of the Year"), among other stars. The Warner seems to have a corner on those older musicals that are out on the road. Black theater, not in great abundance, will be found largely at Ford's, currently premiering "The Amen Corner," a musical inspired by James Baldwin's play of the same name.

In the smaller theaters, the quality is likely to continue to go up and down like a yo-yo. But if you're in the market for surprises, such places as New Playwrights', Source and the Woolly Mammoth (which is honoring that ominous year, 1984) often manage to deliver them--and usually when your back is turned.

Plans are all but guaranteed to change, but right now a month-by-month rundown of the shows that will be bidding for your patronage looks like this: September

"The Golden Age," the latest play by A.R. Gurney Jr., the poet laureate of the upper-middle-class WASP, is centered on a reclusive grandmother, a jazz-age beauty who may have inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald (beginning tomorrow, Eisenhower Theater). The Broadway musical "Sophisticated Ladies" pays tribute to Duke Ellington (Tuesday, Warner). "Monteith & Rand," master and mistress of improvisational comedy routines, return for a second Washington engagement (Tuesday, Kreeger Theater). "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," Andrew Lloyd Webber's playful biblical romp, had long runs at Olney and Ford's theaters. This is the version that was gussied up for Broadway (Sept. 27, Morris Mechanic Theatre, Baltimore). The seven-year Trojan War is the backdrop for a heartless love affair in Shakespeare's "Triolus and Cressida" (Sept. 27, Folger Theatre). Carson McCullers' best play, "The Member of the Wedding," charts the first stirrings of love and maturity in Frankie Addams, a sensitive 12-year-old tomboy (Sept. 29, Studio). A gangster on the lam and a disenchanted writer come face to face in a bleak roadside cafe' in Robert Sherwood's classic, "The Petrified Forest" (Sept. 29, Round House). Six immigrant restaurateurs gather in a remote pub to lament the death of one of their confreres in "Crossing the Bar," a new play by Michael Zettler, which also concerns itself with the contrasting ways of first- and second-generation Americans (Sept. 30, Center Stage, Baltimore). October

"Lost" and "Trading in Futures" are two one-acts by Robert Clyman, which surfaced in Source's recent Washington Theater Festival (Oct. 2, Source's Resource). Twenty years ago, the day Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, an unscrupulous vacuum cleaner salesman invaded a middle-class black home in the city. Ralph Pape's "Beyond Your Command" recounts the latter event (Oct. 4, New Playwrights'). Ibsen's "Lady From the Sea" is forced to choose between her husband and family and her seafaring lover (Oct. 6, Source's Warehouse Rep). Richard Bauer dons the imperious garb of Lady Bracknell for a revival of the Oscar Wilde classic "The Importance of Being Earnest" (Oct. 7, Arena). Tevye in the person of Herschel Bernardi is back for another go-round of "Fiddler on the Roof" (Oct. 18, Warner). A smash London hit, Michael Frayn's "Noises Off," follows a third-rate British theater company as it traipses through the British provinces with an inane sex farce. Dorothy Loudon heads the cast (Oct. 22, Eisenhower). The Negro Ensemble Company has put together a touring production of Charles Fuller's "A Soldier's Play," the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a murder on a Louisiana Army base during World War II (Oct. 25, Ford's). The Pro Femina Theatre has taken a new name, Horizons, but still plans to do theater from a woman's perspective. "Woman's Work" is an original piece with music, based on interviews with women during the Depression, as recorded by the Federal Writers' Project of the WPA (Oct. 27, Grace Episcopal Church). The perils of Bruce and Prudence, brought together by an ad in the "personals" and coping badly with the multiple variations of love and the zaniness of their shrinks, is the matter of Christopher Durang's farce, "Beyond Therapy" (Oct. 28, Kreeger). The Broadway-bound revival of Tennessee Williams' masterpiece, "The Glass Menagerie," has real star power going for it: Jessica Tandy as Amanda and Amanda Plummer as the retiring Laura (Oct. 28, Morris Mechanic). In Karel Capek's prophetic 1920 allegory, "R.U.R.," robots threaten the survival of the human race (Oct. 28, Woolly Mammoth). November

Viveca Lindfors' one-woman show, "Anna," is based on the journal of a Swedish immigrant (Nov. 6, Source's Warehouse Rep). "Krieg," a tormented Irish play about madmen and their keepers, was stunningly directed by Robert McNamara as part of Source's Washington Theatre Festival. Now it's set for a longer run (Nov. 6, Source's Main Stage). Thornton Wilder's enduring "Our Town" is everybody's hometown (Nov. 11, Center Stage). Eva Peron sleeps and claws her way to the glittery top in "Evita" (Nov. 15, Warner). In Joe Orton's black farce, "Loot," logic is exploded and proprieties turned upside down as two thieves grapple ineptly with their booty and a dead body (Nov. 17, Round House). The teacher and sole character of "Miss Margarida's Way" is a bully and a dictator, and the instruction she imparts in her classroom is riddled with frightening and comic misinformation (Nov. 17, Studio). " 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys," Athol Fugard's passionate indictment of racism in South Africa, remains one of the powerful plays of the decade (Nov. 22, Morris Mechanic). Douglas Wager will direct the romantic antics that unfold in the Forest of Arden in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" (Nov. 25, Arena). Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the gang are the familiar characters of the perennial "A Christmas Carol" (Nov. 26, Ford's). The movie was a bust, but there's still life in the musical comedy "The Wiz," which is making another cross-country tour with Stephanie Mills playing Dorothy, the role she created for Broadway (Nov. 29, Warner). The traditional English pantomime, a blend of music hall and fairy tale, gets a hearing on this side of the Atlantic with "Cinderella" (Nov. 29, Folger). Ernest Joselovitz's drama "Flesh Eaters" focuses on a theater group that is being threatened by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities (Nov. 29, New Playwrights'). "Da" is Irish for Dad, and Hugh Leonard's Broadway hit focuses on a lovable but maddening representative of the species (Nov. 29, Barter Theatre at George Mason University). December

Alex Finlayson's new play is set on the "Ladies' Side" of a segregated Texas hunting lodge in the 1950s; a suicide is the topic of conversation (Dec. 4, Source's Main Stage). Mercedes McCambridge and Elizabeth Ashley head the touring company of the Broadway drama "Agnes of God," which looks at the mysteries, sacred and profane, surrounding a young nun who may have given birth to a child and then strangled it (week of Dec. 5, Eisenhower). It's back to the wind-blasted heath for Shakespeare's "King Lear" (Dec. 16, Source's Warehouse Rep). The defiant painter Francisco de Goya, as seen by Spain's foremost playwright, Antonio Buero-Vallejo, is the central figure in "The Sleep of Reason," getting its American premiere (Dec. 29, Center Stage). January

A.R. Gurney Jr.'s very civilized off-Broadway hit examines changing manners and mores in "The Dining Room" (Jan. 3, Barter). Lauren Bacall is a television superstar who is brought down a peg or two by Harry Guardino in the Broadway musical "Woman of the Year" (first week of January, Opera House). Arthur Miller's greatest play, "Death of a Salesman," will star Dustin Hoffman as the beleaguered Willy Loman (Jan. 9, Eisenhower). Maurice Sendak and Carole King's musical "Really Rosie" takes a pack of urban urchins on a magical journey (Jan. 12, Studio). The plight of "Antigone," torn between the law and family duty, makes for one of the towering Greek tragedies (Jan. 12, Round House). The lady with the cough, "Camille," has turned up in operas and films. Here's the play by Alexandre Dumas-fils that got it all started (Jan. 15, Source's Main Stage). The gossips and the rakes are hard at work in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Restoration comedy "School for Scandal" (Jan. 17, Folger). Producer David Merrick fashioned a Broadway musical out of an old movie, called it "42nd Street" and it's still running. This is the touring version (Jan. 18, National). Chekhov's "Three Sisters" pine to go to Moscow, but they are slowly suffocating in provincial Russia. Zelda Fichandler directs (Jan. 20, Arena). A day in the life of a woman about to get a divorce is the stuff of Wallace Shawn's "Marie and Bruce" (Jan. 20, Woolly Mammoth). The gifted Mark Stein has already won plaudits for his one-act, "The Groves of Academe." Making it a double bill is his "Library of Congress Talent Show" (Jan. 24, New Playwrights'). Lucille Fletcher's "Dial M for Murder" is still a model of a chiller (Jan. 31, Barter). February

Jane Martin's extraordinary monologues for women, "Talking With . . . ," combine the frankly bizarre with the oddly touching (Feb. 2, Horizons). The State Department won't let Italian playwright Dario Fo in the country, but you can see his zany, rebellious farce "Accidental Death of an Anarchist" in a new adaptation by Richard Nelson. It's about a bomb-thrower who fell--or was he pushed?--from the window of a Milan police station (Feb. 3, Kreeger). The debates are high-spirited in George Bernard Shaw's "You Never Can Tell," which numbers a dentist and an elderly suffragette among its articulate characters (Feb. 10, Center Stage). Alan Ayckbourn details the foibles and foolishness of middle-class suburban England in "Relatively Speaking" (Feb. 28, Barter). Spring

The sad, empty lives of a group of professors who teach English in a school for foreigners are poignantly and wittily examined in Simon Gray's "Quartermaine's Terms," (March 9, Arena). Tennessee Williams gets another revival--either his "Rose Tattoo" or his fanciful "Camino Real" (March 15, Studio). Robert McNamara has adapted Liam Flaherty's novel "The Informer" for the stage (March 16, Source's Warehouse). The 18th-century Spanish dramatist Alderon de la Barca was one of the theater's most prolific craftsmen, yet his plays are rarely done in English. "The Mayor of Zalamea," which pits a peasant father against the nobleman who ravished his daughter, will help repair the oversight. Michael Bogdanov, associate director of the National Theatre of Great Britain, will stage it (March 20, Folger). For "Another Part of the Forest," Lillian Hellman took the rapacious characters from her hit "The Little Foxes" and then backed up 20 years (March 23, Center Stage). Two lyrical plays by John Guare, "Lydie Breeze" and "Gardenia," which chronicle the deterioration of idealism in America, go into alternating repertory (March 27, New Playwrights'). Caryl Churchill's long-running off-Broadway hit about gender confusions, "Cloud 9," is, as they say, for mature audiences (March 30, Kreeger). Australian dramatist Errol Bray achieved overnight fame in his country with "The Choir," a graphic drama about a dormitory of young boys who have been castrated by an off-stage matron to keep their voices pure. It's said to be a metaphor for the crippling power of institutions (sometime in March, Woolly Mammoth).

The American College Theater Festival, now in its 16th year, comes to the Terrace Theater in April. Then in May, the National Theatre will welcome the second road company of "Cats." In Jean Giraudoux's fantasy, "The Madwoman of Chaillot" rids the world of its profiteers and crooks (May 3, Round House). The Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical "Happy End" is a Germanic precursor of "Guys and Dolls" (May 4, Arena). Tennessee Williams reworked his 1947 "Summer and Smoke" and came up with "Eccentricities of a Nightingale," with its fragile heroine, Alma Winemiller (May 4, Center Stage). "Henry V" leads his troops into a seemingly losing battle with the French in the Shakespearean epic (May 8, Folger). "Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You," Christopher Durang's attack on Catholic dogmatism, is as funny as it is scathing (May 17, Studio). Persecuted Czechoslovakian playwright Vaclav Havel takes on a bureaucracy run amok in "The Memorandum" (sometime in May, Woolly Mammoth).