Josh Aaron McCabe, left, and Jason Asprey in a scene from Rupert Holmes’ thriller, ‘Accomplice,’ at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne
Josh Aaron McCabe, left, and Jason Asprey in a scene from Rupert Holmes’ thriller, ‘Accomplice,’ at Shakespeare & Company’s Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre. (Photo by Enrico Spada / Courtesy Shakespeare & Company)

LENOX -- Virtually nothing is what it seems to be in Rupert Holmes' "Accomplice." Perhaps the biggest deception of all, however, on Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre stage, is the notion that there is a genuinely clever play beneath the slick veneer of tony production values and accomplished acting.

Set in the living room of an English moorlands cottage belonging to Derek and Janet Taylor, "Accomplice" begins with over-cocktails talk between the couple, played by Josh Aaron McCabe and Elizabeth Aspenlieder, that, for all its innocuous banter, holds an edge that clearly indicates a marriage in trouble, so much so that one of them, it turns out, is seriously determined to do away with the other. From that point on, Holmes plots out as many permutations as he can among four characters. Along the way, Holmes tosses in more than a few gratuitous swipes at commercial theater in general and the genre he is poking fun of in particular.

What begins as a romp for Holmes' actors winds up a slog through an overstocked pond of red herrings.

Holmes does play fair with his audience. Nothing happens in "Accomplice" that he doesn't prepare you for in some fashion. But where cleverness and the element of keep-you-off-your-balance surprise in vastly superior plays like, among others, "Sleuth" and "Deathtrap" spring from the characters and serve their needs, the cleverness here serves only Holmes' hubris, with the exception of the evening's cleverest turn which occurs -- and I'm not being sarcastic or snarky here -- as you enter the theater and are handed your program.

Director Stephen Rothman has some fun of his own (my favorite is having characters enter the room from a stormy outside without a drop of water either on them or their umbrella) as he sets his expert cast loose on this material. Even in the interminable stretch drive at the end, Aspenlieder, McCabe, Annie Considine and especially Jason Asprey achieve a balance between the play's calculated stylistic excesses on the one hand and what passes for theater reality on the other.

Holmes demands a great deal of his actors in "Accomplice." Those demands grow in inverse proportion to the rewards as the play wears on. That Rothman's actors sustain themselves as long as they do says a lot about their ingenuity and skill. That's no deception.