On the surface, the Rep Stage's production of "The Return to Morality" is a playful, upbeat comedy about the way political attitudes are formed and altered by image managers, spin doctors and the media. But buried under all the superficial fun is a thought-provoking commentary on responsibility, both in and out of the political arena.

Jamie Pachino's play tells the story of a left-wing professor, Arthur Kellogg (Jack E. Vernon), who has spent five years writing "The Return to Morality," a satirical book that attacks liberal causes and promotes extremism as a cure for social ills. Kellogg believes his humor and irony will demonstrate the folly of using violent measures to solve social problems.

The play begins as Kellogg and his publisher first discuss his book. Kellogg realizes in horror that it has been read as a serious analysis of "the decay of modern morality in America," not interpreted as the fictional spoof he intended. When the book is criticized as nonfiction, it begins to assume a personality of its own. Extremists adopt Kellogg's message, destroying institutions and killing innocent people in the name of his theses.

Immediately the comedy takes on a darker tone, and Kellogg has to face issues more difficult than how to walk onstage and joke with media personalities: How much responsibility for his work does a writer have once the writing is out of his hands?

Skillfully directed by Kasi Campbell, eight actors portray 23 characters in fast-paced episodes. Jeanne Dillon is delightful as the frosty interview coach and the fatuous makeup woman; Foster Solomon is funny as an insouciant PR rep and delightful as newsman Ed Bradley and a fictional TV host. Nigel Reed neatly establishes the comedic tone of the play as the sleazy, money-grubbing publisher, Armando Le Becque, and later appears as Jimmy Jay, a hilarious, dead-on imitation of Howard Stern.

At the center of the controversial maelstrom that used to be his life, Kellogg is a humble, middle-aged man who always wanted to change the world by making people think about their values. But Kellogg is naive, a former peace marcher who believes that good intentions will see him through. Vernon nicely captures this innocent aspect of Kellogg's personality. He is less successful at portraying the mercurial side of Kellogg, the unpredictable element that keeps him from asserting the real premise of his book. Although he goes through a crisis of conscience by the close of the play, Vernon seems to recite his change of heart, rather than communicate it emotionally.

Allyson Currin is excellent as Jo, Arthur's sensible, intelligent wife. Her exasperation with Arthur's refusal to clarify the original intent of his book provides an important counterpoint to all the useless advice Arthur gets from his media experts. Six small but important roles are played by the versatile Helen Hedman.

Music designer Mark K. Anduss has provided a luscious score to accompany the quick scene changes. The set design, by Milagros Ponce de Leon, is imaginative and efficient: a gray wall full of windows, doors and flexible panels becomes the backdrop for an office, a restaurant, a house in Vermont. Barbara Payne's costumes are perfect evocations of the characters who wear them.

At a time when a lot of political theater is about the individual's inability to influence society, this is a pleasant frolic in the opposite direction. And if the play's lighthearted premise seems too cute to be credible, consider this: "The Return to Morality" was inspired by the true story of a satirical book that was misinterpreted for more than 20 years, its author denying that he was writing a "serious" anti-liberal treatise, while right-wing militia groups took it over as a manifesto.

The Return to Morality, by Jamie Pachino. Directed by Kasi Campbell. With Michael Avolio and Ashanti Cooper. At the Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Call 410-772-4900.

Jack E. Vernon and Jeanne Dillon in "The Return to Morality" at Rep Stage.