Top this, Mel Brooks.

In a semilit studio on lower Broadway this evening, E. Howard Hunt -- novelist, retired CIA operative and convicted Watergate conspirator -- is narrating a staged synopsis of his new play. "Good evening," says Hunt, who's wearing a tuxedo and evening slippers, welcoming about 80 people on folding chairs. "Our play opens with the voice of the prosecuting attorney . . . "sw sk

Over the next 75 minutes, a suave con man with a continental accent marries and then attempts to murder a boozy socialite while his mistress eggs him on and her children seek revenge at the behest of their mother's spiritual adviser.

"Well, here she is, brain-dead for a year," says one nurse to another, entering the victim's hospital room. " . . . She's one of the wealthiest ladies in America. She can't enjoy it now, poor thing."

If enough of the producers and potential investors in the audience ante up enough money -- $3.5 million, say -- then "Beautiful People," Hunt's musical inspired by the Claus von Bu low attempted-murder trials, can open on Broadway. Some musicals have cost more, but this one, Hunt has pointed out, has no chorus line.

No dancers with top hats and canes doing a little soft-shoe to "When Sunny Gets Blue." No blond heroine in a strapless gown stopping the show with "Don't Cry for Me, Alan Dershowitz." No laughs, at least none intended.

This is serious. "It's a psychological drama, a study of obsession, guilt, greed, love," Hunt explained at a rehearsal a few days before tonight's staged reading. "The basic human motivations."

The Beautiful People of Hunt's drama are not, let the record show, called Claus and Sunny; they're Andre and Sandy, habitue's of upper-crust Southampton, not snooty Newport. Still, it was the three-ring von Bu low trial, raging in Providence, R.I., last year at this time while Hunt was in town for his 45-year Brown University reunion, that triggered this theatrical event.

There at the bottom of College Hill stood the courthouse, "with this huge number of television vans with enormous saucers on them, crowds of reporters," Hunt recalled. "It was inescapable."

The von Bu low case did not leap immediately to mind when lyricist Linda Marcus, who'd come to Brown to watch her son graduate and had been introduced to Hunt by a professor, buttonholed him at a dance and suggested collaborating on "a musical whodunit." But on his flight home to Florida, reading accounts of the trial and dozing fitfully, Hunt began considering the possibilities. "By the time I got back to Miami," he recalled, "it seemed logical."

Logical? Hmmm. Though Hunt has published close to 60 spy thrillers under various pseudonyms during the past 40 years, he has never before written a commercial play. And even for old hands, the odds of writing a drama that gets to Broadway are slim.

But Hunt -- whose mimeographed bio includes among his accomplishments overthrowing the government of Guatemala in 1954 -- does not exude humility. "I'm not accustomed to failure," he said at the rehearsal, though the bio does manfully acknowledge his roles in both the Bay of Pigs and the Watergate break-in.

Indeed, as he talked about the play's Shakespearean attributes, the admiring Linda Marcus at his side, it did sound almost logical. "I've selected certain perdurable elements from our common dramatic heritage," Hunt intoned, listing "the parvenu husband, the superwealthy wife, the aspiring mistress, the vengeful children."

"A story as old as time itself," Marcus chimed in.

Add the songs, like "In Sickness and in Health" and "Trust Me, My Dear" (at least some of them will be hummable, composer Robert Kreis has promised), and you get what Hunt calls "a sort of Broadway opera . . . We like to think it's unique. It's going to become a genre." He sees Christopher Plummer as Claus, um, Andre. He knows Plummer can sing, Hunt says; he did two choruses of "Edelweiss" in "The Sound of Music."

Only now and again, as the cast of 11 wandered into the dim rehearsal hall at the Kittredge Club last week ("Evening Social and Educational Activities," read the sign by the entrance), were there reminders that the man with the crinkly blue eyes had spent most of his adult life on the other side of the looking glass. There was, for example, the matter of which producers and investors were expected at last night's two readings.

"Some of the people would like to be secret investors," Hunt said, declining to name names. In fact, the Beautiful People company had been asked to give two private readings, at sites he would identify only as being in the South, in one case, and in the North in the other, "for a select group of people who don't want to appear in public."

Hunt also expected certain unmentionable foreign investors, "represented by intermediaries. There's a lot of circumlocution involved. Some kind of Byzantine political operation." He actually said that.

He also actually said that the intensity of the 2 1/2-hour drama, with the victim's hospital bed constantly in view, will make its audience "coconspirators."

Hunt went on to talk about some of his other activities. Today, for instance, he's flying to the University of Georgia for the latest in a series of debates on terrorism. It pits the ex-CIA man against a PLO official from the United Nations. Dean Rusk will moderate.

Soon afterward, Hunt and Marcus will be speaking about "the writer's mind" to a major meeting of the National Council of Jewish Women.

Then on July 4, to benefit a foundation for young performing artists, the two of them will sail out of New York on a Cruise to Nowhere.

Honest