The New Playwrights' Theatre, which has shown encouraging signs of artistic and financial renewal this season, has fallen flat on its puss with "After My Own Heart," a comedy of staggering stupidity by Paul J. Donnelly Jr.

Donnelly claims to be inspired by Noel Coward, and apparently he sees his play as a 1980s update of "Private Lives." "I hope my characters are as articulate and witty as Amanda and Elyot," he has been quoted as saying, "but embroiled in a real conflict." Well, they aren't by a long shot. And if this is Donnelly's notion of "a real conflict," his definition of "artificial" must be a lulu.

Although there are four characters in "After My Own Heart," the only voice you will hear is the playwright's, nattering on endlessly. The dialogue aspires to glib, epigrammatic sophistication, but "Show me a girl who enjoyed her wedding, I'll show you an orphan who eloped" is about as sharp as matters get, which is to say, sharp as a dead haddock. Donnelly does keep trying, however.

"Tense? I could rub your calves," suggests Jonathan. "How about letting me step on your throat?" retorts Elise smartly.

"The only thing that keeps us together is the herpes," jokes clever Kevin.

"I can't think with your tongue down my throat," quips Elise, never at a loss for the bright rejoinder.

Grant Donnelly the virtue of perseverance, although I fear his is the perseverance of the party bore, who simply doesn't know when to shut up and with each passing minute digs himself deeper into a hole.

The plot -- scarely more than a premise -- centers on Elise (Hayden Saunier), who has been living with New York sculptor Kevin (John Lescault) for nine months, although she hasn't bothered to inform him she's still married to Jonathan (Robert Mailhouse), who does something or other on Capitol Hill. At the start of the play, Jonathan shows up to reclaim his wife, and for the next two hours Elise attempts to sort out her feelings. For reasons not readily apparent to me, Donnelly has also included Elise's flibbertigibbet sister Daphne (Elizabeth DuVall) in this me'nage. Daphne is unmarried, jobless, pregnant and has seen "Gone With the Wind" 28 times.

Donnelly's understanding of human psychology is minimal, and since there are no events in his play, only the relentless airing of the characters' arch sentiments, "After My Own Heart" comes across as an interminable ado about virtually nothing. Arthur Bartow has directed it at breakneck speed, which doesn't mask the dramatic void, but does create the impression that the cast has been shot out of a cannon.

This is one of those instances in which only the actors' personal charm can salvage the evening. But Saunier gives a mannered, throaty performance that, at best, could be described as sub-Elizabeth Ashley. Mailhouse's chief distinction seems to be his passing resemblance to Sylvester Stallone, and Lescault's seeming good nature is canceled out by the boobery of his role. DuVall alone bears watching. She really can't make much sense of the flea-brained sister -- who could? -- but she does have a curiously spacey presence made up of sweetness and malice. She is both the small-town girl with a lollipop in her pinafore and the blue angel. And someone should start looking around right now for the play she deserves to star in.