First the manager quit. Then the stage lights went. And last night, the show that was to launch a fledgling Shakespeare company's summer season at the Castle Theater in Hyattsville did not go on as scheduled.

It was, the players said, either election-year politics or government red tape. But the players weren't just the actors who won't get the chance to perform "Hamlet" and "Dangerous Liaisons" there.

They included political lights on the county stage, zoning-development lawyer John Lally and former state senator Tommie Broadwater, who is running hard for the legislative seat he lost after a 1983 conviction for food stamp fraud.

Lally, politically active since his days as an aide to then-County Executive Winfield Kelly Jr., and Broadwater are partners in the building, a former armory, that now houses a theater, restaurant and offices.

The theater had become a symbol of the town's and the county's beleaguered attempts at a more sophisticated image. The Washington Shakespeare Company was a key part of the cultural resurgence being promoted by county officials, in a jurisdiction better known for sporting events and rock concerts at Capital Centre than for live theater.

However, the county's failure this spring to lease space in the Castle for a children's theater group has had a domino effect on the entire operation, with some suggesting that Broadwater's role has stalled negotiations.

In an election year, said Lally, "every political figure and staff member wants everything to look as appropriate as possible. We got into an election year, and everything got goofy. But I think the merits and purpose of this lease would withstand anybody's scrutiny and I welcome it."

Broadwater said he didn't think his candidacy was a factor because the negotiations started before he became involved in the Castle.

Lally has an option to buy the Castle. While seeking financing, he and Broadwater, whom Lally brought in as a 50 percent partner, are paying $20,000 a month in rent for the entire building. The county lease would bring in $8,500 a month, Lally said.

Robert Duncan, a deputy to County Executive Parris Glendening, said the county intends to lease space for arts groups and for county employees displaced while the nearby County Services Building is renovated.

However, the renovation is behind schedule and so is the lease agreement. "We're shooting for the next several weeks," said Duncan, adding that politics were not a factor in the delay, so far as he was concerned.

"Tommie certainly wasn't discussed by anybody with me," Duncan said. "But it's inconceivable there wouldn't be some discussions of his name somewhere in the county government."

Meanwhile, Lally said he decided he had to find a more lucrative use of the theater space than strictly plays, such as banquets and concerts. Hearing of this, Castle manager Sharon Starling quit last week, a Takoma Park theater equipment company removed its overhead lights, and the Washington Shakespeare Company concluded that its shows could not go on.

Yesterday, Lally was scrambling to rent other lights and pleading with the actors to complete their schedule after a week's delay.

But T.J. Edwards, the artistic director of the company, said, "We're out. Our contract has been breached. We feel it's best to break cleanly and find a stable environment to get our theater organization under way." Edwards said he hopes the company, organized in the fall, can find another place in which to perform in the county.