Hotel universe by Phillip Barry; directed by Leo Brady; settling by Rolf Beyer; costumes by Georgia Baker; lighting by James D. Waring.

With Terrence Currier, Ann Sachs, Annalee Jeffries, Rudolph Willrich, Joan Kendall, Michael Rothhaar, Philip LeStrange and Cecilla Riddett.

At the Oiney Theatre through Aug. 3.

If only the play weren't the thing. The Olney Theatre's latest production deserves priase on many counts: director Leo Brady's conspicuous care for the theme and story; the wistful, stunning scenery by Rolf Beyer; the convincing, uncluttered performance of the leading players; and the Olney management's audacity, especially at this escapist time of year, in unearthing a serious, rarely seen work by a major American playwright.

How nice, how just, it would be if these commendable theatrical event (or, less grandly, to a mere entertaining evening). But Philip Barry's "Hotel Universe" remains what it must have been 50 years ago when it failed to win popular acclaim the first time around: a preposterous, flighty playwright's conceit which offers -- in lieu of a plot -- a roster of incoherent, troubled characters and a philosopher-king to bring them to their senses.

Like several other Barry plays (not including the two most famous, "Holiday" and "the Philadelphia Story"), "Hotel Universe" is about rich Americans in France. The curtain rises on a pastel-blue villa, somewhere near Toulon, with spectacular views (and steep drops) all around. Ann Field, the villa's owner, is in an ambiguous state of distress following a young man's memorable suicide. "I'm off to Africa!" he announced as he jumped to his death. Now six friends -- three couples -- have come to console Ann and to urge her back to America.

There are times in "Hotel Universe" when Barry enfolds his gloomy, moody characters in a rapturous romantic mist that threatens to lift them right off the ground. "You've got awfully pretty hands," his idle-rich hero tells Ann, and she replies, "My eyes are nice too. They don't cross or anything." In these roles, which would have commanded Katharine Hepburn and Gary Grant if "Hotel Universe" had ever been filmed, Ann Sachs and Michael Rothhaar briefly bring the play to life with two intense and whimsical performances.

And the second half of the play is a large improvement on the first, thanks to Terrence Currier's work as the playwright's white-haired agent provocateur. With his hair flying strangely off in all directions, and his eyebrows hanging precipitously over his forehead like small awnings, this fine actor looks ready to play Captain Shotover or King Lear -- and, indeed, Barry gives him a few of Lear's lines to fool with as he brings each character back to a moral crossroads and helps set a new course.

But Carter's overpowering presence cannot forever obscure the balderdash he and his fellow actors have called on to speak. "Space is an endless sea and time the waves that swell within it, advancing and retreating," he announces at one point. "Now and then the waves are still, and we may venture wherever we wish." Another character, listening to Currier's pronouncement that "life is a wish" and "wishing is never over," replies, with sudden conviction: "Ah, then life has a meaning."

It should be a heartening lesson to all aspiring writers that the creator of Tracy, Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven came through a period of such unmitigated pretentiousness. Alas, the price of that lesson -- sitting through "Hotel Universe" -- is high, for all its subsidiary virtues.