A mansion in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts provides the setting for "A Talent for Murder," at the Biltmore Theater. Although tagged a "suspense-comedy ," the new play by Jerome Chodorov and Norman Panama is approximately as mild as the summer afternoon on which the skulduggery commences. For some playgoers, the gaiety and glamour of Claudette Colbert -- stunning garbed by Bill Blass -- plus the Gallic suavity of Jean-Pierre Aumont may compensate for a certain blandness in the chills-and-thrills department.
"A Talent for Murder" makes no pretesions to being a psychological mystery. Chodorov and Panama have concocted a traditional, windup comedy melodrama revolving around stock figures, deceptively transparent situations, and electronic gadgetry.
The helter-skelter comings and goings take place at "Twelve Oaks," near Tanglewood, the home of Anne Royce McClain (Miss Colbert), a tippling, cigar-smoking novelist second only to Agatha Christie in the pantheon of mystery writers. Anne has just won an "Edgar" award from her fellow Poe-sters. A woman with a more than colorful past, the septuagenarian widow has also reached a state of eccentricity which her grasping young kith and kin would like her to translate into senility, thereby enabling them to put her away and lay hands on her huge estate, with its $15 million art collection.
The greedy schemers naturally don't reckon with foxy grandma, whose library-study, cunningly designed by Oliver Smith, is a war-games citadel wired for every emergency. Besides a sophisticated recording-bugging device, Anne's redoubt is equipped with a vault-cum -suffocation chamber behind double sliding doors. The mistress of whodunits, who scoots about the stage in an electric wheelchair, explains at one point that she always tests her pilot devices before committing them to print.
"A Talent for Murder" includes the required assortment of characters whose motives are variously honorable, mixed, or murky. The household consists of Dr. Paul Marchand (Mr. Aumont), Anne's apparently devoted former lover; Rashi (Shelly Desai), and aphoristic East Indian servant and paroled murdered; and Pamela Harrison (Liane Langland), whose head injury in a plane accident has left her vulnerably childlike. Visiting "Twelve Oaks" for mama's birthday are Anne's weakling son (Barton Heyman), his scheming wife (Nancy Addison Altman), and Pamela's odiuos husband (Stephen Schnetzer).
The slightly suspenseful comedy is briskly played under Paul Aaron's direction. The problem for director and actors, however, is that Messrs. Chodorov and Panama have created such a flimsy charade that one ceases to care very much whodunit or why. Perhaps "A Talent for Murder" should have been subjected to the same kind of testing by which the best-selling heroine proved out her plots and gimmicks. The production has been lit with spooky touches by Ken Billington and costumed (except for Miss Colbert) by David Murin.m