HOW I GOT THAT STORY by Amlin Gray; directed by Carole Rothman; scenery by Patricia Woodbridge; lighting by Hugh Lester; costumes by Susan Denison; with Don Scardino and Richard Kline. At the Terrace Theater through June 14.

"How I Got That Story" is a triumph of theatrical audacity. With two actors and much scenic sleight of hand, this short play, which opened at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday night, recounts the adventures and transformations of a wire service reporter in war-torn "Amboland." In the process, playwright Amlin Gray gives us a capsule look at the American experience in Vietnam, and at the baffling task that faced any interloper who cared to understand what was happening there.

The reporter, played to the clean-scrubbed, softspoken hilt by Don Scardino, arrives fresh from a newspaper in Dubugue -- that much-abused symbol of American naivete -- and promptly starts interviewing. He interviews spaced-out GI's, preoccupied natives, avaricious bar girls, gung-ho pilots and even the notorious dictator Madame Ing, all played by a good and versatile actor named Richard Kline -- who, as if his 20 roles weren't enough, provides a soundtrack for the play in the form of jungle calls, quasi-Oriental music and falling-bomb noises.

No sooner has Scardino gotten his credentials than he meets Kline as a monk on the brink of self-immolation. The monk (just before he goes up in flames) explains that his brand of suicide is "a political act and a spiritual act at the same time," and that it must be politically pure as a spiritual act and spiritually pure as a political act. Scardino dutifully relays those mystifying thoughts to his readers, just as though he understood them.

Then he goes out on patrol "incountry," and has a wonderful colloquy with Kline as an American soldier whose brain is filled with centuries' worth of accumulated battle lore about fate and deaths. Well, says Scardino, if it's a matter of fate, why bother to duck when the enemy is firing? If the bullet has you name on it, what's the point? Kline, exasperated, explains that when they fire, you duck, and it's as simple as that.

The reporter is wounded, but his superiors at the Trans-Pan-Global news service aren't satisfied with the wound."Not very impressive," says the bureau chief (Kline again), who suggests they move the location about six inches for purposes of reporting it to the readers back home. Instead of a little shrappel in the backside, they'll say it was a bullet in the spine, and they'll prepare a six-part, first-person series for his byline.

The suggestion provokes the reporter to quit Trans-Pan-Global and journalism itself, and continue his explorations as a private citizen. Still equipped with his press card, he goes on a bombing mission, gets show down, captured and ransomed. Now dressing and acting like a native, he proposes marriage to a prostitute -- whose response is to charge him for the extra time involved in listening to his proposal. Later he tries to adopt a native child, but rejects all the candidates because (except for one who turns out to be blind) they won't look him in the eye. He has become addicted to the country, and he desperately wants to country to feel something for him in return. From ludicrous objectivity, he has gone to ludicrous subjectivity, with no stops in between.

These scenes are in the second and more serious of the play's two acts, when Gray takes, I think, too much of a deadpan attitude toward his material. The delight of the play, up to then, is the way it distills the comic essence of our bumbling presence in Vietnam, and describes patterns of behavior among the occupiers and the occupied. "How I Got That Story" is a surrealistic cartoon, with cartoon characters to match. When the play changes moods on us, something -- either the old characters or the new mood -- seems out of place.

Fortunately, Gray's comic faculties keep functioning in happy spurts even as he turns serious, and director Carole Rothman keeps a light touch throughout. Rothman directed a showcase production of the play in New York, and she has brought set designer Patricia Woodbridge along with her for this fuller version under the auspices of the Folger Theater Group. The play has been attractively framed in Bamboo, against a stylized backdrop of an Ambolese street (urban or rural, as needed). Sliding panels zip from side to side to facilitate the scene and character changes, and titles and photographs are projected upon them to tell us, from time to time, what's about to happen.

When everything goes smoothly, the scenery contributes to the overall charm of the play, and Hugh Lester achieves splendidly vivid effects with his lighting. Everything did not go smoothly Saturday night, however, and I suspect the production would benefit from a measured amount of physical simplification.The play doesn't need so many scenic maneuvers. It has the audience's imagination, after all, and it reminds us just how potent a force that can be.