"Where Are the Children?" begins with scenes of domestic happiness so cloying -- kids chucking rocks in the pond, Mom (Jill Clayburgh) beaming as she calls them to lunch, Dad (Max Gail) hollering "Peanut butter's getting cold!" and chuckling heartily at his own joke -- that you can't wait till the kidnaper shows up.

Which he does, in the form of Courtney Parrish (Frederic Forrest), a kook who takes the kids off to a big old house where he prepares to kill them. But first, a little milk and cookies, so that the suspense can build. Clayburgh weeps and weeps, but then again, Jill Clayburgh always looks as if she's weeping. Gail worries earnestly. Rally the friends -- the chief of police, Dad's real estate partner and old Doctor Knowles (Barnard Hughes), a retired psychiatrist who qualifies as a lovable eccentric because he quit caffeine but drinks a cup anyway and quit smoking but bums a cigarette.

"Where Are the Children?" has a silly whodunit structure full of red herrings, the reddest of which is that Mom had been accused of murdering her children from another marriage 10 years earlier. What's silly about it is that you see from the very beginning who dun it. So you sit around and watch everyone wring their hands and wonder where the doggone children are.

Forrest enlivens this mess by refusing to take the kidnaper's murderous, sexually perverse ways at all seriously, thus making him doubly real. Forrest dotes on the children, engages a rubber duck in conversation, preens absurdly in the mirror and never stops muttering -- about foreigners, meddlers and his aspidistra plants. He delivers his lines in the flat, sardonic, highly inflected monotone of Jack Nicholson, but as he talks through his teeth and cuffs the kids in the head, he's closer to W.C. Fields. And he never lets on that he's in the midst of such an atrocious piece of audience manipulation. He's having a ball with it.

Where Are the Children?, at the Circle West End, is rated R and contains sexual themes and some violence.