And how do you play Lenin? a questioner asked the distinguished actor Mikhail Ulyanov, who accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev to Washington and who plays the revolutionary leader in ''Peace at Brest,'' a play on the cutting edge of glasnost that opened in Moscow last month.

His American listeners leaned forward: not only is Lenin's separate peace with Germany in 1918 -- yielding territory to ensure survival of the infant revolution -- still a metaphor for national humiliation. A new layer of relevance has been added to the play by Gorbachev's similarly pragmatic intent to alter international course in order to win a ''breathing space'' for domestic goals.

And after a pause came Ulyanov's answer: ''The right way,'' presumably meaning according to the unvarnished truth depicted in Mikhail Shatrov's play, "pravilno."

Everyone was caught up by the deftness of Ulyanov's reply.

Everyone was also caught up by the crosscurrents of the occasion, a Wilson Center dinner for some of the intellectuals in the Gorbachev delegation (shades of the huge groups Peter the Great used to take abroad!). Intellectuals are a natural constituency for glasnost, and Gorbachev has recruited them as a shock force to combat reform-resistant bureaucrats at home and, as on his Washington mission, to take glasnost on the road and smooth his international way.

In that latter role, the Soviet group at the dinner did well. It is impossible not to admire courageous, creative people who are pushing against the thugs of their society. When Shatrov acknowledged that his play on Brest has ''contemporary'' overtones, the remark was taken as a commendable flash of glasnost in a difficult foreign setting, and no one was so ungracious as to expect him to spell it out.

From the Soviets themselves, however, came a strong rebuff to any tendency on the part of Americans to imagine that glasnost is moving the Soviet Union toward a free society. An unapologetic Ulyanov affirmed the Gorbachev line: power belongs to a single Communist Party (this is classic Leninism); freedom means the acceptance of responsibility down as well as responsibility up and the struggle against bureaucracy. Western-style political rights? Forget it.

In a broad sense, every Soviet leader plays Lenin -- attempts to borrow the mystique of the Russian Revolution's enduring father figure. Gorbachev, who is laboring in uphill pursuit of ''restructuring,'' has an evident need for the Lenin mantle. And just as Lenin had to threaten resignation to get his way on peace at Brest, so Gorbachev has indicated he would resign if his program does not move ahead now.

So it seemed natural that Gorbachev invoked Lenin, in the context of the Brest peace no less, from the heart of the White House this week. Telling the big evening Soviet television audience about the new missile treaty, he recalled that Lenin -- taking power during a war that, partly thanks to him, his country was losing -- had immediately offered to consider '' 'any proposal leading to peace on a just and solid basis.' This has been the cornerstone of Soviet foreign policy every since.'' Thus did Gorbachev hitch up Lenin's feeler to Kaiser Germany to the political situation he is in now.

Well, all right, play Lenin. But which one? Historically there were two, and it pays to know which was which. First came the Lenin of War Communism in 1918-20, the period in which Lenin, to consolidate the revolution at home, used force to extract grain from peasants and prescribed terror against ''class enemies.'' But this also happened to be when Lenin made the peace at Brest, retreating from a foreign war, and when he played down the notion of kindling foreign revolutions.

There followed the Lenin of the New Economic Policy, or NEP, of the early 1920s, a phase of relative economic and social relaxation which is now widely taken as a forerunner of Gorbachev's program of domestic restructuring.

We Americans, in our own dealing with Gorbachev, favor the more moderate Soviet domestic policy of NEP and the more moderate Soviet foreign policy of the War Communism period. Whether we will see either flourish hinges, after the summit as before, on how Gorbachev plays Lenin.