A TALENT FOR MURDER -- At the Eisenhower Theater through September 19.

Claudette Colbert looks great in "A Talent for Murder" at the Kennedy Center, as does the set of the new mystery comedy. By the time it moves on to New York the play may have pulled itself together into a delightful evening's diversion.

But as of opening night in the Eisenhower Theater the show was rough as a cob, full of unrealized characters, missed cues, prop failures and repartee that tripped over rather than off the actors' tongues. The barely two curtain calls were a lukewarm reaction indeed for Washington, where theater patrons tend to stand for, and even cheer for, just about anything.

Some of the problems seemed simply the result of too little rehearsal being allowed for such a talky and tricky production, while others seemed fundamental. Any new play needs work, of course, but his one needs major surgery: The first and second scenes should be cut in half and grafted together. Along with other trims and some acceleration of pace this would shorten the play from two hours to about 90 minutes, to the benefit of actors and audience alike.

Yet, all this done, the play still would have to be said, and unfortunately it was old pro Colbert, around whom the whole thing revolves, who blew the most lines. She also committed most of the cue muffs and suffered through all but one of the balky props.

Playing Anne Royce McClain, a famous, rich and aging ystery writer beleaguered by a family that wants her money, Colbert created the persona splendidly -- the play was written for her by Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama -- but again and again lost the thread of the web she was spinning.

Badly in need of support, she got it only from leading man Jean-Pierre Aumont, playing a dignified, witty and goodhearted gigolo, and from Nancy Addison Altman as a wonderfully villainous villainess.

Alas, the key role of the butler was uncertainly played by Shelly Desai. When he was supposed to be menacing, he lacked force; when the call was for comedy, he lacked farce. Barton Heyman, in the far more difficult role of McClain's not-altogether-weak son, was not all together. Liane Langland never established the parameters of her part as McClain's brain-damaged granddaughter. Mark Harrison was good as the granddaughter's good-guy husband, but went bad during his transition to bad-guy intriguer.

Oliver Smith's set is such a gem that it was excruciating to see his buzzers and lights and sliding doors mishandled. Colbert, whose own mufs were no doubt partly due to her apprehension over what was not going to happen nxt, was heard to muter, "Well, that was just great, wasn't it?" after one of her exits was reduced to shambles.

Chodorov and Panama are fine old hands at stagecraft, and Colbert is a trouper, which made the main mystery of the evening the question of how such talented people could come up with such a clumsy production.

The premise and plot and even the title of "A Talent for Murder" are classic Christie, which the playwrights acknowledge by taking a shot at the late Dame Agatha in the dialogue. Better they should go back and read her.