NIGHT AND DAY, by Tom Stoppard, Directed by Peter Wood; scenery and costumes designed by Carl Toms; lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis; produced by the Kennedy Center, Michael Codron and James M. Nederlander.

With Maggie Smith, Frank Converse, Peter Evans, Samm-Art Williams, Dwight Schultz, Larry Riley, T. J. Scott and Joseph Maher.

At the Eisenhower Theater through Nov. 17.

There is a scary moment early in Tom Stoppard's "Night and Day" when Maggie Smith -- evidently back from a hard day's shopping in Jeddu, which is somewhere in Kambawe, which is somewhere in Africa -- wearily announces, "I don't feel up to being witty today."

Not up to being witty? M. Smith? Where are the refunds? Get me immigration! Who tampered with the deck?

Seconds later, the terror recedes. "By the way," says Smith, the copper magnate's wife, to a London news photographer who has just popped up on her patio, "We don't call them 'Boy' anymore. The idea is, if we don't call them 'Boy' they won't chop us with their machetes."

She has been having us on. She won't mind being witty, after all. She also won't mind being lusty, dreamy, frightened, frightful, or even, if the script requires, Elizabeth Taylor in the movie "Elephant Walk."

On a scale of one to 10, Smith's imitation of Elizabeth Taylor, as an imitation, rates about a four. But it is a part of a performance that rates a charge up Kennedy Center Hill with your dollars outstretched.

"Night and Day's" other great virtue -- besides a part worthy of Maggie Smith, and Smith in it -- will be greeted with less universal approval. Tom Stoppard has written a play about a public issue -- the role of the press in what is commonly called the Western World. Someone has apparently failed to notify Stoppard that playwrights don't write about issues any more. They write about their fathers and their mothers and their gastro-intestinal tracts, but not about issues.

Stoppard has set his play in a central African nation which, as one seedy London paper puts it, "is being ripped apart by the struggle between a paranoid president who once played Othello at his public school and a cashiered colonel whose iron fist, U.N. observers fear, may turn out to be holding a hammer and sickle."

Enter Jacob Milne, free-lance reporter, who comes up with the story of a lifetime -- an interview, by way of being kidnapped, with Colonel Shimbu, the rebel. All the Fleet Street veterans, meanwhile, are left in the lurch -- especially Dick Wagner of the Sunday Globe, whose own paper has printed Milne's spectacular scoop and who is doubly offended to discover Milne's record as one of the "Grimsby scabs" -- non-union reporters who refused to honor a strike against a suburban paper.

By letting Wagner, Milne and their hostess, who has her own unhappy history in the headlines, debate the uses and mis-uses of a free press, Stoppard has invited trouble. There are theatergoers who will not sit still for a play that encompasses an intellectual debate, no matter how gracefully rendered. And some of the subject of "Night and Day's" debate, particularly the influence of reporters' unions on British newspapers, does not cross the Atlantic easily.

But the Kennedy Center production has aggravated the risks by leaving Smith, at times, in woefully inferior company.

In the middle of the living room where most of the play transpires is a tree -- a fine-looking tree that belongs to one of the most attractive sets installed on the Eisenhower Theater stage in recent memory. The only problem with this tree is that one or two members of the "Night and Day" cast seem to have learned their comic acting style from it.

The casting of Samm-Art Williams as the African president looks like the result of an exaggerated effort to avoid an Idi Amin look-alike. Williams, who must carry a good deal of the action of the second act, is neither intimidating when he should be intimidating nor funny when he should be funny.

As Wagner, the veteran London reporter with whom our heroine had a quickie affair in London, Frank Converse is proof of a lamentable fact that actors don't like to admit -- a good actor is not necessarily a good comic actor. During the first half of the first act, when Converse seems to be paying disproportionate attention to his accent (Australian) and his posture (slouched), many of Stoppard's funniest lines roll by almost unnoticed. Yet Converse ultimately creates a character that is both convincing and sharply drawn.

Smith is the only English performer in the Kennedy Center cast, and there are times when her co-workers seem determined to prove the hazards of putting American actors into a London hit. But Americans Peter Evans, Joseph Maher and Dwight Schultz have landed safe and sound in their thoroughly British roles, so Actors Equity -- which strives to keep foreign actors off these shores except when they are box-office stars a la Smith -- can perhaps, rest easy.

If you think the plot of "N&D" sounds vaguely like Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," you will be relieved to hear that Stoppard apparently thinks so, too, and, in lieu of a formal acknowledgment, tips his hat to Waugh with the imortal line, "Up to a point, Lord Copper" -- the ritual reply to Waugh's news mahnate's outragious assertions.

But "Night and Day" takes a far more romantic view of the press than "Scoop." That a sane young person should stick his head into a civil war in quest of a byline strikes Stoppard as fantastic, and he takes the time to note that 54 journalists died, and 18 were lost, in Vietnam.

The Vietnams and Watergates, as Stoppard reckons things, make up for "We Find the Vanishing Vicar of Lover's Leap." Junk journalism is "the price you pay for the stuff that matters."

There could be profounder conclusions and perhaps even a profounder debate than the one that anchors this play. But "Night and Day" marks a healthy turn for both Stoppard and the English-speaking theater.