A TALENT FOR MURDER by Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama; directed by Paul Aaron; scenery by Oliver Smith; costumes by David Murin and Bill Blass; lighting by Ken Billington; produced by Edwin S. Lowe.

Late in the second act of "A Talent for Murder," Claudette Colbert, as the noted mystery writer Anne Royce McClain ("second only to the great Agatha"), summons her fellow cast members into the drawing room for the climactic interrogation. The culprit is, needless to say, in the room and about to be unmasked -- until one of the presumed suspects lodges a protest.

"Mother," he says wearily, "will you please pick a murderer and let us all go to sleep?"

There was, I believe, widespread identification with this sentiment in last night's audience at the Eisenhower Theater, although subsequent inquiry revealed that the clock had scarcely struck 9, leaving plenty of time for dazed patrons to repair to the nearest publick house after the curtain descended, in quest of instant amnesia.

The star, although charming and beautiful as ever, succeeded in forgetting much of the play even as she performed it, and there will be those, undoubtedly, who will try to pin much of the night's misfortune on flubbed lines, clumsy pacing and other such ephemera. "Give it a few weeks," they will tell each other, with reassuring nudges of shoulders, backs, knees and hindquarters. Indeed, being the first city to witness a Broadway-bound play has rarely seemed a more doubtful honor. But the incompetence of last night's performance could not disguise a certain underlying hopelessness about the work itself, a quality which should only grow clearer as the production acquires the rhythm and confidence it is presumably aiming for.

Convention forbids disclosing too much of the story line in a play of this genre -- and thank heaven for convention! Even without benefit of a post-theater drink, it is hard to focus on all the data playwrights Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama dole out in the course of this attempt at a comedy/ suspense play in the "Sleuth"/ "Deathtrap" tradition. Let it be noted, however, that the ingredients include a priceless art collection, an electric wheelchair, a secret hiding place, electronic eavesdropping, disguises, suffocation, adultery and a family which, for cumulative venality, makes "The Little Foxes" look like a pack of chipmunks.

Let it also be noted that the humor fails to fall trippingly from anyone's tongue, and there is too much plot, of which too much happens in the past and not enough in the present, and too much offstage and not enough on. Many a mystery play has stumbled at the finish line with a recapitulation of all the inexplicable events that have come before. But "A Talent for Murder" is the first specimen of its kind that seems to get bogged down in recapitulation from the start. It also sets a questionable precedent in arranging to leave the audience ignorant of critical clues in the unraveling of the mystery.

The heroine is a best-selling author who prides herself on pre-testing every gimmick that goes into one of her mysteries, and who belittles Agatha Christie on the ground that "you could drive a truck through some of her plots."

Well, you could drive a fleet of MX missiles through the central premise of "A Talent for Murder," which has to do with a gang of anxious heirs trying to commit eccentric Granny Colbert to a nursing home or a mental institution. Civil commitment isn't as easy as it used to be, and it was probably never a lackadaisical enough business to pose much of a threat to a character with the wealth and wiles of this one.

Authors Panama and Chodorov have had a hand in many worthy pieces of screencraft and stagecraft -- including "My Sister Eileen" and "The Court Jester," respectively -- so it is no crime if, in a spare moment, they hatched a play that should never have been performed outside of a high school or a barn. The crime lies elsewhere, with the producer, director, designer and cast -- all the people, in short, who made the strange decision to put this play on. That adds up to such a mighty crime that even co-star Jean-Pierre Aumont (as a French doctor) and Shelly Desai (as an Indian servant) can't quite be forgiven, despite their relatively creditable performances.

And speaking of culpability, the Kennedy Center should be ashamed.