OK, here's the thing to remember if you go see the stage thriller "Sleuth" at Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts: Don't believe anything you see, hear, or, for that matter, read. That even applies to the to program being handed out by the friendly ushers.

The devilish British playwright Anthony Shaffer did his best to confuse and confound you and Mark Anderson Phillips, who directs this production, seems only too happy to join in on the gag(s).

"Sleuth" has been around since 1970, in one form or another. There have been dozens of productions around the Bay Area, and the two film versions are available on video. But the stage production is best, and you can't go wrong with the lavish Walnut Creek version staged by Center Repertory Company.

Kit Wilder plays the rich and famous mystery author Andrew Wyke and Thomas Gorrebeeck is the young and dashing Milo Tindle who is having an affair with Wyke's spouse.

Milo is conducting the affair so well, in fact, Wyke urges him to continue with it. He even offers to help.

Or perhaps not.

Perhaps Wyke is not who he seems to be. But then, maybe he is. I'm still not sure, and I saw the whole thing unfold before my eyes just hours ago.

This confusion is not due to a complex and confusing plot. Everything happens on stage, right in front of you, and it's not particularly complicated.

"Sleuth" is the sort of play Agatha Christie would have written if she'd had an enormous cruel streak. The story line reaches a point where it bolts free from its stiff-upper-lip British mooring and runs madly around the stage.

And it works, mainly because "Sleuth," itself, is something that it isn't supposed to be. When it opens in Wyke's country home in Wiltshire, England, it seems like the audience is in for a conventional English drawing room mystery.

And what a drawing room it is, too. Scenic designer Michael Locher has created a set that everyone would kill to take home, provided they have a two-story great room, a fondness for dark wood, books, painting, photographs, a cozy fireplace, comfortable furniture, lots of games and other diversions, and a bar that never seems to run out of booze.

What most makes this production work, however, is the cast. Wilder and Gorrebeeck create amazingly believable characters who seem absolutely real, until all the strange stuff begins to happen and the story takes a hard left at crazyville.

The two men are in a pitched game of cat and mouse, with the roles of hunter and hunted changing frequently as the story gets stranger and stranger.

It's a wild ride well worth taking.

Contact Pat Craig at pjcraig495@yahoo.com.

'SLEUTH'
By Anthony Shaffer, presented by Center Repertory Company
Through: April 26
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, Civic Drive at Locust, Walnut Creek
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $36-$61, 925-943-7469, www.centerrep.org