"The Playboy of the Western World" is enjoying a spirited, inventive production in the larger of the two new ASTA theater's on Capital Hill. This is the most capable production I've yet seen there.

Director Dona Cooper's inventive touch includes excising two male characters (Philly and Jimmy) and a few lesser ones and building their assignments into the female roles of Sara Tansey and Susan Brady.

This alteration and resultant diminution of bodies on the small stage has the effect of underscoring John Millington Synge's attack on the ignorance and hero-warship to which he felt his countrymen were far too addicted. The gigly girls become more foolish than Philly and Jimmy. Misplaced passion for macho behavior becomes a more sexual statement, a tone probably more 1978 than Synge's 1907.

In setting up as hero a slight fellow usually afraid of his own shadow, Synge was telling his countrymen that appearances are deceptive. When Christy Mahon gets a second chance to kill his Da in public, Synge points out, he does not seem to heroic. But in the course of the action, Christy realizes that his macho imagination can grab the girls. So he will set out with his twice-revived Da to conquer Ireland village by village.

A corollary to Cooper's elisions and additions is that one does grasp more vividly than usual why Irish, especially Irish-American, audiences pelted insults and stale vegetables at the play's early performances. The fey Irish imagination was but one part of Synge's writing; his sardonic, dark mockery of that imagination is the other. Cooper's assured staging makes those contracts vivid.

The cast, now cut to eight, is well-balanced and has worked almost two well on Irish accents. Howard Levy is decisive and amusing as Christy, with Linda Early ably alternating from pride to despair as Pegeen. Madeleine Potter and Rebecca Russell play the enlarged roles of Sara and Susan, an excellent tandem performance, with Potter especially effective. Scott Schofield is fine as Old Mahon. Geralyn Lutty, as the Widow Quin, Paul Potter and Owen Parmalee complete this cast, and Russell Metheny's setting serves well.