To the untrained eye, Fay DeWitt may look like the perfect '50s singing star in Dennis Deal's smashing "Nite Club Confidential" (currently at the Tiffany). But the throaty, auburn-haired actress knows better.

"When I auditioned for the show in New York, I sang for Dennis in my jeans and plaid shirt," DeWitt said good-naturedly, "and he said, 'Well, it's not exactly Kay Goodman (her character).' I assured him that I fixed up good.

"See, I am beyond casual in my normal dress. Kay is a woman who sits at her makeup table for an hour and a half, putting on her eyelashes, waist cincher, falsies, wigs--which is really beyond my ken.

"The hardest part of this woman," she continued, "is getting the hang of being so glamorous and so arch and to make her falseness have a base in reality."

The story--a deliciously campy satire with high-gloss song and dance--centers on the messy love affair between DeWitt's character, "a middle-aged singer on her comeback trail, and this cute young guy (played by Scott Bakula). He's a user and a manipulator. So is Kay Goodman. So is everybody ."

All of which seems in sharp contrast to the off-stage DeWitt, a gentle woman who admits to "being a prodigious child. When I was young, I always worked, the agents would always call. But as I got older, the work wasn't as forthcoming. And you know, I never got off the dime, got ambitious. It was like, 'If you give me a job, I'll do my damnedest to do it well,' but I was never out there hustling.

"It's funny," she said. "As a child, my mother's whole thing was 'if you didn't work you were a bum. Keep your nose to the grindstone, never be obligated to anybody.' That was the way it was. If I didn't do a good show, my life was shattered; if I did a good show, I could live and breathe again."

Marriage changed that rigor.

"That was a fine part of my life," she nodded. "I loved my children (Laura, 23, and James, 24) and my husband so much. All of that: the loving and being loved was so terrific. And I had work in addition to that. Life was really full."

As time passed, however, she divorced, and her children grew up ("It was like, 'What do I do now ?' "). In 1982, she swallowed her fear and set off for her native New York, where she took a tiny apartment and began a new bicoastal life. "I grew up as a bicoastal child," she noted, "but not in the glamour sense. In the schleppy sense. Like I attended 21 schools."

Soon "Nite Club" came along. Premiering in 1984, the show progressed through several incarnations on its way to Off Broadway, "while Dennis (Deal, the composer/director) just kept working on it, making it tighter--and the reviews just kept getting better and better."

Her good fortune was interrupted by a freak fall. A broken ankle left her hospitalized for a month "and totally out of it, a cripple for four months. I still limp."

Physically maybe, but not spiritually. For a life that started out in the limelight (DeWitt was a veteran of three Broadway shows by age 17, followed by appearances in Ben Bagley's "Shoestring '57" and "Vintage 60"--plus years of U.S. and European travel with her own comedy act), she appears unscarred by the ups and downs that have attended her long career.

"I figure, ' Que sera, sera, ' " she shrugged about the disappointments. "How are you going to do something (about something) you can't do anything about? The problem is that before 'Golden Girls,' there wasn't a place for middle-aged actresses. Oh, occasionally (playing) a neighbor, a maid. But now they're really paying attention to us."

It's an attention she hasn't always felt at ease with.

"When I was little, my mother used to make me play the piano for people. I'd do it and they'd be overwhelmed. But it was always such an unpleasantness for me. And it left me feeling like I was nothing off the stage. . . . "

The old insecurities have since been replaced by a sturdy appreciation of her personal worth--quite separate from the "to die for" raves assessing her latest professional triumph.

"In our business," she said blithely, "it's easy to have this elevated view of yourself. I don't."

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