The only thing of the slightest importance I have to tell you about "A Talent for Murder," a woefully creaky thriller that opened last night at the Biltmore, is that its leading lady, Claudette Colbert, looks absolutely smashing at 78 and in a succession, four in all, of stunning Bill Blass outfits.
And that's probably all that matters to the matinee ladies, of whom a sizable representation was present, oohing and aahing at each fresh appearance by the star, at Wednesday afternoon's preview.
The authors, Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama, have let the dazzling septuagenarian down severely. "A Talent for Murder" is a bomb as murder mysteries go. I didn't even realize it was ended until the curtain calls began. It is several cuts below mere claptrap.
Colbert plays a cigar-smoking, brandy-drinking, wheelchair-ridden author of mystery potboilers (she's published 68 and is at work on another) named Anne Royce McClain, second only to Agatha Christie for whom she has scant regard. (Incidentally, she could not have been awarded an Edgar, as she is here, for that annual prize is for the best first mystery novelof the year.)
Members of her family have gathered at the old girl's Berkshires estate for her birthday, and the majority of them would rather like to see her sequestered in a Florida nursing home, if not dead, so that they might sell off the place and its furnishings, including a $15-million art collection.
But she does have allies: an Indian butler she had sprung from a Pennsylvania prison; a dotty 25-year-old married granddaughter who walked away from a plane crash with an addled brain; and, the most important, an ex-lover and solicitous attendant, a French doctor unfrocked for a mercy killing, played by Jean-Pierre Aumont, who also looks pretty good at a mere 72.
And since Anne tests the efficacy of the murder methods employed in her works, she also has a concealed walk-in vault from which the oxygen can be drained in seconds. She also has the whole place and at least one guest bugged so that she can tape conversations, including plots against her, within a five-mile radius.
Such complications, and I've listed just a few, are perfectly germane to the mystery thriller, but Chodorov and Panama have shuffled them so clumsily and with such a lack of energy that there is more excitement in following the star as she whips about in her electric wheelchair than in following the story.
Colbert and Aumont are every bit as charming as you might expect, and some perfectly competent actors are wasted in the other roles. The director, Paul Aaron, keeps everybody on the move without any head-on collisions (except for an intentional bumping) in an elaborate library-study designed by Oliver Smith. The costumes other than the star's have been created, with imaginative touches, by David Miron, and the often tricky lighting is the work of Ken Billington.
Take an elegant alcoholic pyromaniac - and call her, say, Claudette Colbert. She is a millionairess, a mystery writer, owns $15.7-million worth of paintings, including a Braque, a Miro, a Modigliani, and a youthful portrait of herself painted by Braque.
Add a former, loyal lover - a personal physician who spends part of his time in Paris, whom we will call Jean-Pierre Aumont. The names may sound familiar, but then so are the performances.
They are adding their luster to a play called A Talent for Murder, which opened at the Biltmore Theater last night. Written by Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama, it needs every bit of luster it can muster. A Sleuth or Deathtrap it isn't.
Yet audiences for comedy thrillers - and it is a theatrical genre I enjoy myself - are traditionally undemanding. Usually with good reason.
This is not one of the great thrillers, but is no dog - even if it were, look what happened to that Hound of the Baskervilles - and adherents of this kind of entertainment will find it perfectly acceptable fun.
Oh, I should add, there are more characters, or rather more suspects, than merely Miss Colbert and Mr. Aumont.
We have Miss Colbert's son, an ineffectual editor of a presumably artistic quarterly, his diamond-digging wife, and then Miss Colbert's slightly brain-damaged granddaughter and the granddaughter's loud-mouthed young husband who has a distinct penchant for nymphets.
Finally there is a native servant, an inscrutable man of the East - cook, bartender, chauffeur - called, understandably enough, Rashi. (Never entirely trust people called Rashi, unless they are of the Eskimo persuasion.)
Now what is going to happen? I will tell you what is going to happen. I shall give entirely the complete plot.
Someone - perhaps more than someone - is going to get murdered, conceivably by accident, because murderers are getting more careless all the time.
Perhaps more than one person will get murdered. Perhaps more than one killer. And red herrings will be as abundant as sardiness in Sardinia. So much for the plot.
No, let me tell you more - to hell with convention that one must not divulge the plots of thrillers. I mean why for example do these characters - or at least one of them - wear strange disguises? Possibly more.
Why do you think the thriller-packing novelist - obviously crippled, one presumes - is an expert on electronics, small cigars, and smoke detectors?
And then there is the motive - the reason why the killer kills. I will divulge even that. It is meant to put the murderee at a distinct disadvantage called death. So now you know the entire plot.
But note the moment at 9:35 when Rashi comes in and places a very special bottle of brandy (or something unsuspiciously like it) on the bar. What does this mean?
I never found out, but keep your eyes as peeled as a Mae West grape and you might get lucky.
Oliver Smith's setting - that designer for all seasons and moods - has the right kind of campy artifice to it, and Paul Aaron's direction, with all its fits, starts, and stops has the proper air.
Miss Colbert, who continues to reverse the normal processes of time, and Mr. Aumont are both ineffably charming.
Liane Langland and Nancy Addison Altman are both, in differing ways, devilish attractive, and the remaining three men. Shelly Desai - particularly good as the putatively sinister servant - Barton Heyman, and Stephen Schneitzer, all produce sterling character performances in just the right mode.
In short - the kind of comedy thriller where you cheerfully leave the theater humming that great song from Fiddler on the Roof - "Tradition!"
Please - before we get to the sorry heart of the matter - let's pause for a fond salute to Claudette Colbert. In ''A Talent for Murder,'' the Jerome Chodorov-Norman Panama play that arrived at the Biltmore last night, this star is quite a surprise.
Or so she is for this theatergoer, who missed her last Broadway appearance in ''The Kingfisher.'' It's not merely that the actress, now in her late 70's, still looks hearty, with her big Betty Boop eyes, curly light hair and shimmering array of bright Bill Blass gowns. What's really pleasing is the fact that her low, one-of-the-boys voice remains intact as well - effortlessly hurling asides like pool balls into every pocket of the house. This is no grande dame preserved in aspic to impersonate the coy ingenue of ''It Happened One Night.'' This is the sardonic Colbert revealed by Mitchell Leisen and Preston Sturges in ''Midnight'' and ''The Palm Beach Story'' - a lady of piquant, irrepressible, ever-so-amusing common sense.
But I do worry about her judgment in scripts. Aside from its brevity (Act II is a sneeze), Miss Colbert's latest vehicle has but one virtue: it allows its star to be on stage virtually the entire time. That's not enough. ''A Talent for Murder'' wants to be a mystery or a comedy - and the audience has the right to demand that it be so, too. But, as whodunits go, this play is one big piece of Swiss cheese, minus the cheese. And, as for the comedy - well, not only has Miss Colbert known better, but so have Mr. Chodorov (the co-author of ''My Sister Eileen'') and Mr. Panama (co-author of the Hope-Crosby ''Road to Utopia'').
The star plays Anne Royce McClain, a successful mystery novelist ''second only to the immortal Agatha.'' Confined to a wheelchair by various ailments, she lives in a Berkshires estate called Twelve Oaks, surrounded by her $15.7 million art collection and her extended family. Anne's relatives wouldn't mind killing her (or each other) to get their hands on a Matisse or two - and they're not bashful about revealing their intentions. Indeed, when the heroine describes her household as ''a nest of vipers,'' she's only being polite.
Anne's son is the ''gutless, impotent'' editor of an ''ineffectual little quarterly'' who openly refers to his mother's 68 novels as ''drivel.'' Sonny's wife is a greedy, blackmailing philanderer who wants to lock her mother-in-law away in an old-age home. Anne's other child, a daughter who suffered brain damage in an airplane crash, is married to a Maserati salesman fond of seducing 15-year-old girls. In their spare time, you may not be pleased to hear, this crowd likes to take in the concerts at Tanglewood.
In any case, it isn't easy to care who does what to whom - especially after we meet the actors cast as the villains. As cloddishly directed by Paul Aaron, they're all leering, sneering varmints who would disgrace a high-school production of ''The Lottery.'' Not that better performances would make a great difference. One must totally subscribe to the powers of luck - and, at times, clairvoyance - to believe that this play's crimes could even be committed. When the culprits are anti-climactically revealed, they seem to have been chosen by lot. Nor are the authors successful in their efforts to place Miss Colbert in frightening jeopardy; our only real fear is that she might die of boredom.
That mild concern extends to two other cast members: the savvy Shelly Desai, who makes the most of an Indian butler who uses the word ''chutzpah'' (one of the evening's bigger jokes), and to Jean-Pierre Aumont, playing a live-in doctor who was once Anne's Parisian lover. All Mr. Aumont, a good actor, gets to do here is wander aimlessly about Oliver Smith's typically well-executed drawing-room set. Wearing a blazer, ascot and frozen smile, he looks like nothing so much as a maitre d' presiding over a restaurant full of empty tables.
Miss Colbert is kept slightly busier. She puffs on cigars, takes ''belts'' of brandy, opens and closes her Jack Benny-style vault, rattles off the sales figures of her books (hardcover and paperback) and, on one occasion, lets fly with a four-letter expletive. But, really! While no one expects Miss Colbert, now or ever, to play ''Medea'' - or even ''The Little Foxes'' - surely she can find a stage vehicle, however light, that gives her more to drive than a wheelchair.