Following the adventurous leadership of artistic director Fran Pruyn, the New Shakespeare Players, opening their season this year with the play "Bent," have carved out a nice little niche for themselves in the Salt Lake theater community."Little" is the operative word here. NSP doesn't do things on a grand scale. They've made their reputation as an alternative theater, producing an eclectic mix of shows that appeals to small segments of the community. They don't brag about numbers; they brag about survival. Their main concern seems to be doing the best job that they can do on their shoestring budget so they can maintain their small-but-loyal audience. And if they can do it while tweaking the nose of convention, so much the better.

"We do theater for people who like to think," NSP proclaims in big red letters in its 10th-season brochure. "We do theater for people who can embrace startling new ideas, new staging, unconventional humor and raw passion . . . and call it entertainment."

Never was that more true than with "Bent," the World War II drama that Pruyn directs as the company's season opener at its new facility in Westminster College's Walker Hall. "Bent" is a homosexual love story set during World War II in Nazi Germany - just the sort of upstream swimming NSP was apparently spawned to do.

Before we go any further we'd better be very clear about one thing. This is not the sort of play in which the homosexuality of its characters is only vaguely alluded to. It is explicitly depicted, with graphic language and intimate physical contact. There is no nudity in the play, but it is extremely sexual, with a couple of scenes that would be considered exploitive even if they were presented in a heterosexual context. I daresay most in this community would find viewing the play uncomfortable, if not downright offensive.

So much for the Family Home Evening audience. Indeed, the very nature of the play probably eliminates a sizable portion of the area's play-going public. Which leads you to wonder why a small, struggling theater company would undertake a play with such limited appeal.

In her program notes, Pruyn says she chose "Bent" because "it represents what we think is best in contemporary American theatre." She also expressed a need to shed some light on a little-known historical tragedy: The execution of an estimated 250,000 homosexual men in Nazi concentration camps.

But I have a hunch that the strongest motivation for doing the play was revealed in something else she said in her notes: "I am proud of NSP for producing `Bent' in a conservative city during a conservative decade." In other words, it was an image thing. Doing "Bent" was not as important as being able to say "We did `Bent,"' thereby perpetuating the company's reputation for non-traditional, off-center, alternative-style theater.

Certainly it wasn't the script that was the big attraction here. Martin Sherman has written essentially a TV script, with blackouts and complicated scene changes that would fare better on videotape than they do in the intimate Walker Hall facility. And his language is so graphic, you have to wonder if he was really going for communication - or shock value.

"Bent" couldn't have been selected for its directorial opportunities, either, with fully half of the play's action consisting of two men walking back and forth across the stage, carrying rocks from one pile and putting them into another. And the acting challenges? Well, one character presents an interesting study. But the rest play mostly to one-dimensional extremes: Nasty Nazis and homosexuals who are, respectively, swishy, masochistic and soulfully sensitive.

The one exception is the character of Max, who is brought to angst-ridden life by Grant Gottschall. This is the play's most interesting and most important character, a self-absorbed free spirit who is able to con his way through life - even in a concentration camp - until love reshapes his values and priorities. Gottschall is outstanding throughout, and his excellence seems to elevate the overall quality of the play.

But one fine performance isn't enough to recommend "Bent" - unless, of course, you're vitally interested in the subject matter and aren't worried about the visual and verbal beating you'll take.

And you don't mind being used to help perpetuate an image.