Jane Alexander is talking about honor - a word, she says, that has disappeared from our vocabulary.

"Our fathers used it. Our grandmothers used it. We don't. So I think it is an interesting word to bring back into our culture today," the actress says.It also happens to be the name of the character - and the title of the play - that returns Alexander to Broadway this week. It is her first major theater role after a difficult four-year stint at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C., a city where honor is not exactly top priority.

The title of the play is spelled "Honour," to distinguish the virtue from the character. The drama by Australian playwright Joanne Murray-Smith already has been a success with audiences and critics in both Sydney and Melbourne.

On Broadway, "Honour" could be quite a risk. It is a new play by an unknown playwright about a subject that has been the stuff of countless dramas and soap operas: husband leaves wife for younger woman.

Yet Alexander is sure of the play's quality.

"It is a well-written, unpredictable piece of work about a subject many people can relate to," she says with a laugh. There are four characters - wife, husband, other woman and the older couple's angry daughter.

"This play is like music, a quartet. I am impulsive. I can tell right away if something is good. It may not be a play that the audience ultimately responds to, but for myself there was an immediate response."

For Alexander, the choice of director is just as important. Gerald Gutierrez, who guided the Lincoln Center productions of "The Heiress" and "A Delicate Balance" to success, is in charge.

"When we first met, we immediately said exactly the same thing, almost at the same moment - `I love it,' " she explains. "And that was it."

Alexander never discusses the play in depth with the playwright.

"I always go through the director. I think there is a very strong chain of command in the theater. I don't like it when a playwright comes over to me and gives me notes. I want them always to go through the director."

"Honour" is a visually simple play.

"It's not about props. It's not about the set. It is about ideas with a very strong emotional attachment. It wouldn't make a good movie. By the same token, I don't think you have to listen to absolutely everything. Hopefully, the behavior and the emotional response will carry the piece as much as anything.

Alexander doesn't get involved with casting choices, although in this play the actors playing the husband and wife are very dependent on each other. In "Honour," Alexander's husband is portrayed by Robert Foxworth, a veteran stage actor who most people still know from his role on the long-running prime-time soap "Falcon Crest."

"Foxworth and I go way back. We were members of the Arena Stage company in Washington from 1965 to 1968. And we did - and we are still trying to count them - we did more than a dozen plays together back in the 1960s."

It was at Arena that Alexander had her first big success, appearing with James Earl Jones in "The Great White Hope." The play brought them to Broadway and then to Hollywood.

These days, Alexander says she is happy to be back in the theater. The actress went right from "The Sisters Rosensweig," the Wendy Wasserstein hit, to Washington in September 1993, and she didn't have time to decompress until early this year.

"I missed acting, but I didn't have any time to think about it," Alexander says. "I never worked so hard in my life as I did in Washington. It was four years of relentless, hard work.

"I was the ambassador for the arts and at the same time I had the role of trying to get Congress to pay attention to us and give us money. That occupied a lot of my time because our funding was being cut. Then there were tons of invitations to speak, plus the day-to-day running of the agency."

During Alexander's tenure at the NEA, she had to make painful cuts at the agency, slashing, among other things, her staff from 275 employees to 150. The endowment's grants to arts organizations around the country also were reduced, from $150 million to $81 million.

"I miss my staff," Alexander says. "I don't miss the politics. It was a very bad time. It was deeply discouraging for the arts, particularly because of many politicians' lack of involvement or interest or understanding of the arts.

"Some of them just said, `We don't need a federal role in the arts,' " she says with a sigh.

Her reputation as a fine actress didn't carry much clout in Congress or the Senate.

"Not one of them ever referred to anything I had ever done because they had never seen any of my work," she says with a laugh. "This is what I would usually get: A leading senator, who shall remain nameless, once said to me, `I hear you did some acting before.'

"But there were some good things, too. The number of arts advocates around the country are enormous and their dedication is amazing. They work under incredible hardships."

Now all Alexander has to worry about is her new play and being on Broadway.

"Sure, it's risky and maybe even scary, but Gerry (Gutierrez) felt Broadway was the right place for `Honour.' He felt that the subject matter was one that a lot of people could identify with.

"And there is another thing. This play had two very good productions in Australia. The author already knew that there was an audience for this. There already is an understanding of what the public response and the critical response is to the play. Broadway may be different from Sydney, Australia or Melbourne, but there is a a universality to `Honour' that will help it find an audience."