Among today's younger dramatists, Beth Henley possesses a unique talent for combining emotional fragility with robust comedy. Miss Henley perceives the humor as well as the pathos amid even life's grotesqueries. Her work has been described as Southern-fried Gothic. Kooky Chekhov might also apply. Like the Spanish moss festooning John Lee Beatty's picturesque settings, the particular and peculiar elements of the Henley vision are luxuriantly displayed in ''The Miss Firecracker Contest,'' at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
The funny-sad play opens as Carnelle Scott (Holly Hunter) is practicing her act for the July Fourth beauty contest being held in small-town Brookhaven, Miss. Carnelle is determined to emulate her beautiful cousin Elain (Patricia Richardson) by winning the contest and leaving Brookhaven ''in a crimson blaze of glory.'' Carnelle's act features tap-dancing, Roman candles, sparklers, American flags, and rifle twirling - all to the tune of ''The Star Spangled Banner.''
It can be left to Miss Henley to reveal the outcome. Meanwhile, the playwright focuses on the very odd characters who enliven the situation: bushy-haired cousin Delmount (Mark Linn-Baker), a local Don Juan with a past as a mental patient; beautiful cousin Elain, a temporary refugee from a suffocating marriage; and seamstress Popeye Jackson (Belita Moreno), a pixie romantic who hears through her eyes and gets a crush on Delmount. There are also Mac Sam (Budge Threlkeld), an ailing balloon seller, and Tessy Mahoney (Margo Martindale), the beauty contest coordinator who comes on strong.
The events of ''The Miss Firecracker Contest'' obey the logic of their own absurdity. They seem likely and even inevitable in the hands of the sympathetic author and the excellent cast directed by Stephen Tobolowsky. Miss Hunter is touchingly irresistible as the striver who has turned her back on promiscuity - she was once known as ''Miss Hot Tamale'' - and reformed her ways to reach for the crown of Brookhaven's next Miss Firecracker. Though her determination is exceeded only by her lack of talent, Carnelle is gallant to the last. Here as elsewhere, Jennifer von Mayrhauser's excellent costumes help define character.
''The Miss Firecracker Contest'' ends with Carnelle, Popeye, and Delmount watching the Independence Day pyrotechnics from a perch atop the tent where the contest was held. Their delight in the skyrockets' red glare, as caught in Dennis Parichy's lighting, somehow recalled a remark by the late Sir Ralph Richardson (as quoted in ''Peter Hall's Diaries''). Said Sir Ralph: ''I love fireworks. They are so unnecessary.'' I think Beth Henley would appreciate that.
Two previous Henley plays have found their way to Broadway, notably the prize-winning ''Crimes of the Heart.'' Whether of award caliber or not, ''The Miss Firecracker Contest'' deserves a life beyond its limited engagement (to June 24) at the Manhattan Theatre Club.