The honor of opening the 15th annual American College Theatre Festival fell to Washington's Gallaudet College and its theater arts department, one of seven such group selected by panelists from more than 400 entrants in 12 national regions.

Gallaudet's "The Kid," describing itself as "a musical in sign and mime," is a sugary wisp of a piece, wafer thin and altogether platitudinous in content. But it's put across by its cast of 12 with such winning, felicitious spirit and facility that you hardly notice.

The play, presented in the second of two performances at the Terrace Theatre last night, is by William Moses, theater chairman of Gallaudet, the unique college for the deaf. Moses not only wrote the book and lyrics, but also designed the costumes, directed and co-composed the music with Chris Patton.

With Jeffrey Grendel's merry scaffolding of grid work, panels and platforms as an all-purpose set, the scenario follows the central, cartoonish character (the Kid--like all the others he wears whiteface and white overalls with color patches) through life's little trials and tribulations, from birth, infancy and the classroom (where the theme of the Kid being a kind of "outsider" is introduced, only to be inexplicably dropped), to courtship, marriage and scrambling up the ladder of success. At length, the Kid fights his way to the top (literally, in a symbolic boxing match), only to start his fall--drinking jags, a fling with a barmaid, domestic spats, general alienation. He takes a suicide jump, only to be saved by a net--a patchwork quilt held by his wife and friends (the symbolism goes on). At the last comes guilt, contrition, forgiveness and a "happily ever after" ending.

All this is communicated wordlessly by the players through mime, gesture and facial expression, except for Moses' lyrics (sung by Bari Biern and Scott Sedar accompanied by a combo led by Patton), which are icky enough to make "The Fantasticks" seem like the work of the Marquis de Sade. Yet, somehow, despite everything, the performers win you over, with a charm, dexterity, imagination and warmth that never quit. "The Kid" is a triumph of style over substance if ever there was one.