"Make and Break" is an oddly perspicacious British comedy that has far more merit than is evident from the American production, which opened a month-long pre-Broadway run last night in the Eisenhower Theater.

This edition marks the return to the stage of Peter Falk after a 12-year absence, and while it is encouraging to see him swap the detective's trenchcoat for the dark tailored suit of the businessman, it must also be said that Falk is the one who is pulling the whole edifice down.

Admittedly, he has stepped into a strange and tricky work. Playwright Michael Frayn has chosen as his central character John Garrard, the managing director of a firm that fabricates wall and door units of, apparently, limitless versatility. And he has set his play in a spacious suite in a West German hotel, where Garrard and his staff are attending a trade fair in the hopes of drumming up an international clientele. Occupying most of the stage, in fact, is a multidoor display unit that opens and closes in umpteen combinations and that surely would have enchanted that theatrical master of the slammed portal, Georges Feydeau.

On the surface, Garrard is distraction itself--seemingly oblivious to the questions thrown his way. When he does respond, it's usually to the question three questions back. He's a fonte of non sequiturs, a preoccupied pitchman, whose pitch always appears to be coming from left field. Yet it takes no time at all to realize that Garrard is no idle dreamer. The man has commerce on his mind, nothing but commerce. He may seem bland as a biscuit, but his brain is engaged in nonstop wheeling and dealing. The chatter of his coworkers certainly isn't going to derail him. Nor is the dutiful down-at-the-mouth secretary who has long eyed him fondly over the order books. And as for those shooting chest pains that can throw a man's whole life into question, well, they may give Garrard a moment's pause, but not much more.

Outside the hotel, terrorists' bombs are reverberating. One of Garrard's right-hand men gets stinking drunk with the German hostess who staffs the exhibition stand downstairs. That dedicated secretary even loosens up enough to allow herself to be coaxed into bed. For Garrard, however, such episodes are mere footnotes to his abiding motto: Business, as usual.

The role, you may gather, is key to the functioning of Frayn's play. But as Falk is now playing it--mostly with a pixyish charm and quixotic whimsy--the steely drive has been thrown into low gear. The supporting cast is excellent and Michael Blakemore, who mounted the original production, is an insightful director. But neither director nor supporting cast can keep matters properly alert, when Falk keeps dozing off at the wheel.

Frayn has made a few accommodations to the actor--giving Garrard an American background to replace his former English origins. But that doesn't surmount a basic problem. The rhythm of Frayn's literate dialogue is essentially British, and the humor is decidedly dry. Falk's rumpled presence and the laconic nasality of his delivery are wildly out of place here.

That is doubly unfortunate, because otherwise the production is primed and ready to take off. Blakemore's orchestration of the opening five minutes--which has the salesmen and their prospective customers weaving in and out of the maze-like door unit--is a splendidly funny piece of precision timing. Biff McGuire projects palpable warmth and integrity as Garrard's fellow executive. And as the secretary, Cynthia Harris finds the humanity in a doormat.

As the sort of salesman who slaps you on the back and presses a stiff drink in your hand, Stephen D. Newman is grand, just as grand as the flip view of the profession, Jim Piddock, an unsure mouse, who really would prefer to pass out religious tracts. David Hurst impresses in an unlikely role--a customer from Hungary, looking not only for merchandise from the West, but for under-the-table favors as well. And Linda Kozlowski is perfectly pert, as the German hostess, whose radical enthusiasms come out at night.

But as it stands, "Make and Break" is like a factory without a boss, an assembly line without someone manning the switch. Having seen the London production, I can vouch for the fact that Frayn's play can deliver the goods. In the Eisenhower Theater, the shelves appear half empty.