The Off the Circle Theater Company, which until now has more or less depended upon revues highlighting various American composers, has branched out with a staging of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's "The Threepenny Opera." The intention is as laudable as the cabaret surroundings of Columbia Station are appropriate for this raffish look at the London underworld. But the production itself is a dreadfully uneven affair that borders in spots on the slipshod.

Cynical and accusatory, yet touched with moments of melodic beauty, "Threepenny" is the saga of Macheath, king of thieves and guttersnipes, and the various women who throw themselves at his white spats as he wends his inevitable way to the gallows. "The wickedness of the world's so great that you have to keep running so your legs won't be stolen out from under you," notes Mr. Peachum, who licenses and clothes the city's ersatz beggars. His observation is reflected throughout the opera--in song and dialogue. Morals are the prerogative of the wealthy classes, a luxury for those whose bellies are already stuffed.

The characters in "Threepenny" have, in fact, adopted a reverse set of morals. When Mr. Peachum's pretty daughter, Polly, elopes with Macheath, Mrs. Peachum huffs indignantly, "You got married! You immoral girl!" Hypocrisy is the natural form of social intercourse in this milieu, and no one's principles are so firm that they won't melt at the whiff of a bribe.

The score is replete with abrasive ballads, gritty songs of social protest, ironic love songs and, of course, the deceptively melodic "Mack the Knife." At Columbia Station, five musicians lend a properly rough edge to the music, which is meant to scratch, but not all the performers have the style to match. Best are Robert Redlinger, as a Dickensian Mr. Peachum, and Amelia Esten, who plays his wife in a manner suggestive of a young Angela Lansbury. Gregory Ford does well with his rendition of "Mack the Knife," and while Wayne Anderson doesn't have much of Macheath's subversive charm, he certainly has the slicked-back looks and the snarl.

The cast is determinedly second-rate on most other fronts, although Thomas E. Allen makes a chipper beggar named Filch. Particularly wasteful is the casting of Sarah Pleydell Walton. As Jenny, she gets one of the show's most celebrated songs, "Pirate Jenny," a tidal wave of hatred and vengeance, here reduced to a feeble ripple.

Much of the physical production has a make-do look, which is not quite the drawback you might think. After all, this is an opera performed by the down and out, put together with spit and a shoestring. Still, it occurred to me more than once that even spit and shoestrings can be utilized with somewhat more flair than is evident at Columbia Station.