By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Fans of BBC mysteries involving MI6, the British Intelligence agency that handles international spy stuff, will enjoy this small-scale puzzle-play about double dealing and turned agents. Inis Nua Theatre Company's production of Dawn King's play, Ciphers, is handsomely performed under Tom Reing's satisfyingly sly direction.
To understand the central character, Justine (Isa St. Clair), it's worth remembering that the play's title has a double meaning: a cipher is both a coded message and a nonentity, a person of no importance or distinction. And although it may be hard to believe that about this lovely actress with her long red hair, it is crucial to her character. A cipher obviously makes the perfect spy.
And so she is hired by Sunita (Felicia Leicht), a severe woman with power in the Agency. When Justine is found dead, her sister Kerry (St. Clair doubles in this role) is determined to prove that it was not suicide but murder. The sisters' distraught father (John Morrison) advises Kerry to forget her investigation; Morrison then reappears as the Russian ambassador.
It helps both the surprise factor and the encryption factor, that all four excellent actors play two roles each, since we have to keep decoding what/who we're looking at.
We finally find out who dunnit after more than two dozen tiny scenes, and there are sufficient twists and turns along the way to keep the game afoot. The Agency is after somebody named Mohammed, a suspected terrorist, and Justine recruits Kareem (J. Paul Nicholas) to pass along information from the neighborhood after identifying him as recent traveler to Pakistan. Nicholas also plays Kai, a sexy, philandering artist who has a jealous, rich wife, Anoushka (Leicht again). When Kai and Justine meet at his gallery exhibition, they discover they both speak Japanese; St. Clair is equally dazzling in the scenes where she has to speak Russian.
The minimalist set (Meghan Jones) is enlivened and complicated by Janelle A. Kauffman's video design, varying from surveillance tapes to garden foliage, while Shon Causer's lighting design radically alters the atmosphere over and over again, as the chronology flips up and back.
Although I found one hole in the play's ornate logic, I found myself rethinking the ah-hah! moments all the way home and coming to different conclusions each time. Good fun.
Inis Nua at Off-Broad Street, 17th & Sansom Sts. Through Oct.26. Tickets $25-30. Information: 215-454-9776 or www.inisnuatheatre.org