Richard III by William Shakespeare. Directed by Andre Ernotte; scenery by Bill Stabile; costumes by Ann Emonts; lighting by Marc B. Weiss; movement by Theodore Papas; presented by the Kennedy Center and the American Shakespeare Theater in association with the Potters Field Company. With Michael Moriarty, Viveca Lindfors, David Huffman and Philip Casnoff.

At the Eisenhower Theater through Sept. 27.

Somewhere in the hodgepodge that opened at the Kennedy Center last night, which the producers have decided to call "Richard III," a concept must be lurking. Somewhere among the mystifying elements visible to the naked eye -- the Napoleonic costumes, the marionette-like postures, the monotonously stylized line-readings, the cigarettes that dangle from Viveca Lindfors' mouth and Michael Moriarty's odd gropings in the neighborhood of his crotch -- there has to be an articulable view of the play.

Whatever it is, however, it fails a primitive test. No one having his first look at "Richard III" in this form could have the slightest idea why it has been a favorite of audiences and actors for 400 years. Too many key ingredients have been left out, or smothered beyond recognition.

Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is one of the awesome con artists in literature. Even as he gleefully narrates his villainy for the audience, people are being taken in by his virtuous posing -- among them his two brothers, King Edward IV and George, Duke of Clarence; his young nephews; his ally, the Duke of Buckingham; and (in one of the magnificently outrageous love scenes of all drama) Lady Anne, daughter of one man Richard has murdered (Henry VI) and widow of another (Prince Edward).

Shakespeare does not make clear, in modern terms, how Richard manages to fool so many of his intimates (while others, including his mother, see right through him). But neither does the play offer any excuse for the approach taken by Moriarty and Co., which is to have Richard wear his hypocrisy on his sleeve at almost all times. The sniveling face he presents in his asides to the audience is, here, the same face he presents to his fellow characters -- robbing the play of the contrast that is one of its great alluring qualities.

The wooing scene with Anne is particularly limp and charmless. Moriarty makes no effort to be convincing -- or even to approximate conviction -- and Anne's acid retorts, as rendered by Denise Bessette, are not very acid. Rarely has a great scene been so bungled.

There is more to say about Moriarty's performance, little of it good. After some insufferably slow speeches at the beginning of the play, with pauses that are irritatingly at odds with the meaning of the lines, he gets into the habit of talking so fast that the words are slurred and hard to follow. And when audible, his delivery is usually off-handed and inert.

And what of his deformity? This Richard has a bit of a posture problem, but he actually looks rather winning in his Napoleon suit. And his withered left arm seems perfectly functional whenever Moriarty wants to wave it grandly in the air.

Except for a few hearty moments, Moriarty manages to keep his acting talent from having any impact on his performance. In fact, the only way one could know he is a good actor is by deduction. Who but a good actor would have the audacity to so underact a part that has been known for extravagant histrionics down through the centuries?

The rest of the cast has obviously gotten the message, although Philip Casnoff, as Clarence, succumbs to the temptation to act a little during his dungeon dream scene -- with good, if incongruous, results.

Director Andre Ernotte has done more than the usual amount of cutting and tampering. A whole new character, Mistress Shore, has been added (although given no lines), and Edward IV's death is so portrayed that he seems to have a venereal disease. But most amazingly of all, Richard commits a few killings in this production that Shakespeare never thought of. In strange pantomime scenes, he does away with the reluctant member of the assassination team sent to eliminate Clarence, and later with an inconsequential citizen who happens to speak ill of Richard out of his hearing (or so Shakespeare thought).

This is probably the first production of "Richard" ever to find the number of murders insufficient. That's a distinction.