If you could take a prospective tourist -- any tourist -- and suddenly plop him down on the Mall or the steps of the Capitol, chances are he would know exactly where he was; the landmarks of Washington are instantly identifiable. Let that tourist stick around for a while, and he's apt to tell you that the flavor of the place is equally distinct. As one of my house guests once put it, "You just know you're not in Dubuque."

If you could take a prospective theatergoer, however, and parachute him into one of our theaters for an evening, would he be so quick to find his bearings? Would it dawn on him midway through the spectacle that he was in the Nation's Capital? Or would he wonder whether cable cars or palm trees, freeways or Lake Michigan awaited him outside?

I raise the question because there's been a lot of talk lately about Washington theaters, as a generic group separate and different from New York theaters or Los Angeles theaters. A number of them have even banded together as the League of Washington Theatres to address the problems of doing business here. The recently formed organization that calls itself the Helen Hayes Awards has been thinking along similar lines. In May, it will hand out its first statuettes -- the local equivalent of the Tonys -- and already representatives are scurrying from playhouse to playhouse in search of noteworthy performances and meritorious stagings.

The rationale is that Washington has long since spawned its own theater community, made up of artists who have consciously chosen to work here and draw their sustenance from the area. Broadway, so the argument goes, has become some kind of aberrant sweepstakes. There may be far less glory in Washington, but there's compensatory honor in becoming part of the city's daily life, reflecting its concerns, acting as its pressure valve, entertaining its populace.

Like most arguments, however, I wonder if this one doesn't overstate reality. While nothing would be healthier than a flourishing theater that Washington could call its own, what we have right now, it seems to me, is simply a number of theaters in Washington. And that's not the same thing.

Put aside the National and the Warner, which don't claim to be other than Broadway outposts. Consider such institutions as Arena Stage, the Studio, New Playwrights', Woolly Mammoth or Horizons, which pride themselves on their local roots. How deep does their connection with Washington go?

Most artistic directors insist they are constantly on the lookout for "the Washington play." That's not necessarily a play set in Washington, although the Woolly Mammoth found one a few years back-"The Kramer," a bitterly revealing account of playwright Mark Medoff's experience in the Washington bureaucracy. The Kennedy Center's chairman, Roger Stevens, rightfully reasoned that if "The End of the World," Arthur Kopit's play about the insanity of the nuclear arms race, was going to find an audience, it was in Washington, where so many of the strategies are hatched. (Stevens' thinking may have been correct; it's just that the play wasn't very good.) Dario Fo's antic political farce, "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," struck a far more responsive chord at Arena last season than it did recently with the Broadway critics, who seemed to find its gibes beneath them.

A "Washington play," however, doesn't necessarily have to be about Washington. It can embody themes that are particularly characteristic of life here -- the sense of transiency, the great concentration of power, the weight of so much paperwork, the heightened awareness of public masks and private selves, born of our daily traffic with politicians and governmental agencies.

Zelda Fichandler, Arena's producing director, puts Preston Jones' "A Texas Trilogy" into that category. Those heartfelt plays, which painted the humdrum existence in a small Texas town bypassed by the interstate, were a huge hit here, but later flopped in New York. "I think it's because Washington is full of people who remember back home, whereas people in New York live there," Fichandler says. "Washington audiences knew the values Preston was talking about, the displacement, the loneliness, the longing. After all, most people in Washington are from somewhere, trying to get somewhere else."

Likewise, "Beyond Therapy," Christopher Durang's farce about the swinging generation as it hits 30 and the shrink's couch, seemed to Fichandler particularly attuned to Washington, which has a ballooning singles business and more psychiatrists per square inch than any other city in the nation.

Joy Zinoman, the director of the Studio Theatre, says she chose to stage "Miss Margarida's Way," that scalding portrait of a classroom teacher as archetypal dictator, "out of political motives." Horizons went directly to the government archives and compiled "Women's Work" from original WPA documents that recorded women's fortunes during the Depression. For years, the New Playwrights' Theatre under Harry Bagdasian labored to give local playwrights a platform (it was, you may recall, the New Playwrights' Theatre of Washington for the first seven years of its existence, until the bulk of plays started coming in from elsewhere), and the Source keeps up the scouting with its annual Washington Theatre Festival.

Despite such attempts to connect specifically with the Washington landscape, however, most of our theatrical fare is drawn from the standard pool of classics and contemporary plays momentarily in vogue. (Remember the recent tidal wave of Beth Henley comedies.) When such fare applies to us, it tends to apply broadly. At a time when the gap between generations loomed particularly large in our collective consciousness, Arena astutely chose to revive Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." But there's no reason to believe that superlative production would have played any differently in Peoria. "Death of a Salesman" does not take on a resonance in Washington that it would not also have in Philadelphia. If the Studio's "Fifth of July" was wonderful, it was wonderful for reasons of the heart that are no different here than anyplace else.

Liviu Ciulei, the gifted Romanian director, once staged what he called "a Watergate 'Hamlet' " for Arena -- it accentuated the closed doors, the whispers, the overheard conversations. Few Shakespearean productions are quite so timely. It may be job enough to accord the Bard to 20th-century sensibilities, in general. The Folger Theatre, under John Neville Andrews' stewardship, can be inventive with Shakespeare, but it's the kind of invention that puts "Comedy of Errors" in a mideastern casbah, or has "Much Ado About Nothing" unfold on an ocean liner. Washington doesn't really figure into it. Can you conjure up a "Tempest" to reflect local climate? Arena didn't -- didn't even try, I suspect -- preferring to opt last October for a splashy magic show instead.

In fact, if you go looking for the city's imprint on its theatrical fare, you look mostly in vain. Although the majority of Washington's population is black, black theater has never established a secure foothold here. The Rep Inc. falters repeatedly. Most of the black plays that do turn up -- "Woza Albert" and the current (and astonishing) "Oedipus at Colonus" at Arena; "A Soldier's Play" and "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" at Ford's; "When Hell Freezes Over, I'll Skate" at the Eisenhower -- are New York imports, brought in to satisfy a demand that is not being met by the home team. Or met only sporadically at best. GALA's efforts to serve the Spanish-speaking population are only somewhat less fitful.

Logically, you might expect the area to be eager -- indeed, begging -- for political satire, if only as an antidote to the miasmas of self-importance that periodically emanate from Capitol Hill, the Pentagon or the White House. Where are the zanies (besides Mark Russell) who would do for Washington what the Second City troupe does for Chicago? It certainly isn't for a lack of targets or an overweening reverence for our elected officials. Fichandler attributes its absence to a simple "lack of people able to do it." But Howard Shalwitz, the director of Woolly Mammoth, wonders if asking Washingtonians to rally to political satire isn't "like asking a doctor to go see a play about people being cut up and dying."

Still, whether we actively follow the myriad affairs of statecraft or merely absorb them by osmosis, politics remains the determining factor of Washington life. "By being the nation's capital, we can't help but unite politics and thought, politics and emotion," says Fichandler. "Washington exists in tangent to the best forces of drama. All the primary themes of contemporary life -- power, sex, disruption, loneliness, corruption, the need to center oneself -- are attached in Washington to a political core that other cities don't have. Maybe they're even compressed -- exacerbated -- by this place. So much of the city has its feeling system attached to the political system and the very timber of Washington changes with changes in the system."

As a result, Fichandler believes, Washington, more than any other city, offers the most receptive climate for eastern European and Soviet drama, which frequently uses political repression as a metaphor for psychological repression. "That's a theme of great importance to Americans in general, but especially to people who work in the government," she says. No theater in the country can match Arena's record, when it comes to producing works from the eastern bloc countries. Plays such as "Duck Hunting," an eye-opening account of the alienated Soviet man, or "The Ascent of Mount Fuji," in which the survivors of Stalin's purges tried to finger the traitor in their midst, would simply not have been performed in the United States had Arena not taken the initiative.

But for all the heightened political awareness the city presumably nurtures in its residents, most of our theaters are chary of leaping into that particular fray. "America, in general, is afraid of mixing politics and art," says Leslie Jacobson, Horizon's artistic director. "And Washington is most afraid. It's as if the center of fear is here. People's antennae are very acute and they're very concerned about being on the right side of issues. A play that is too controversial is dangerous to talk about afterwards. You have to be careful what you say. Such plays rarely do as well as those that deal with personal relationships or plays of pure escapism." Horizons even went so far last year as to change its name from Pro Femina. "The name Pro Femina scared people," Jacobson says. "It sounded too partisan."

Zinoman prefers to "work against" the notion of Washington as a center of power and influence. "Audiences here are not as huge and differentiated as they are in New York, and they mostly want to be entertained," she says. "The question is, how do you reel in the people who work hard, then, essentially, go home and watch the Redskins on TV? I don't know if you do that by dealing with the very issues that those people have been dealing with directly all day long."

Even the Woolly Mammoth, easily the most socially and politically aware of the city's smaller theaters, sometimes fears the dangers of being "too topical," of taxing an audience already suffering from "overload."

The upshot is that the very peculiarity of the place in which we live and work -- the very place that defines our ambitions or frustrates them -- is rarely reflected on the stage. Lest this sound like an argument for parochialism, the first demand we should make of a play is that it be a good play. The second is that it touch and somehow unite us as human beings whose deepest instincts and emotions are similar wherever we live. The best dramas transcend time and space; their truths hold as fast in one corner of the country as they do in another.

But there is a third expectation that we can rightfully entertain -- that our theater plug into the here and now. Those works that we have come to regard as timeless are, in fact, very specific about their time, their place and the creatures who inhabit them. "A Glass Menagerie" continues to tell us a lot about the errant and unintentionally destructive ways of the heart. But most of all, it tells us about a very particular lower-class family, Tennessee Williams' own, living in St. Louis during the Depression.

What the American theater has increasingly lost over the last three decades is its sense of urgency. Instead of being at the center of American life, it has become a cultural adjunct, not quite (but almost) on a par with a socially advancing cocktail party. We may still look to it as a source of entertainment, especially when we're feeling flush. But we rarely look to it for answers, enlightenment, direction. Television stirs up far more controversy these days.

If the theater has ceased to be the mass medium of preference, it may have gained something in its fall, however. The dominion of Broadway no longer prevails. The regional playhouses that sprang up across the country beginning in the 1950s are able to call their own shots and respond directly to their individual constituencies. Although many regional theaters disseminate discouragingly similar fare, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles does not have to behave like the Tyrone Guthrie in Minneapolis, which, ideally, can take a different tack from the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven.

The good news about the multiplicity of Washington theaters is that multiplicity permits -- in fact, demands -- a division of the theatrical labors. The more groups, the more specific each one can and must be in its pursuit and courtship of an audience. In this respect, Fichandler's view of the city as "a prism" that refracts the broad themes of drama and concentrates them is instructive. There are more than enough facets to go around. Attending the Studio, say, should be nothing like going to New Playwrights'.

When Peter Sellars, the recently appointed director of the American National Theater Company at the Kennedy Center, looks at Washington, he sees, as do many newcomers, "the population that is making the decisions that will shape the course of this country into the next century. Political discourse, as the presidential debates showed, has disintegrated to primitive levels. The theater must not only participate in that discourse, but elevate it. It can restore the complexity and show the human dimensions behind the slogans."

Sellars' first production won't go on view until the spring, but immediacy is very much on his mind. "This whole city is about news," he says. "This week's news -- not last week's. We have a responsibility to do productions that make headlines, that take advantage of the latest advances of theater, that contribute to the scandal and frisson that characterizes life in this city."

If he's right and fast-breaking news stories are part of the Washington fabric, shouldn't we have some fast-breaking theaters in our midst, as well?