At one point in Bruce Norris' pitch-black new play -- a shocker, even by Steppenwolf's outre standards -- a young girl (just 5 or 6 years old) lifts her dress to reveal to another character a huge genital rash. In Norris' mind, the little American daughter's itchy red condition is an apt metaphor for her upper-middle-class parents' general malaise, anger, materialism and hypocrisy.

At one point in Bruce Norris’ pitch-black new play — a shocker, even by Steppenwolf’s outre standards — a young girl (just 5 or 6 years old) lifts her dress to reveal to another character a huge genital rash. In Norris’ mind, the little American daughter’s itchy red condition is an apt metaphor for her upper-middle-class parents’ general malaise, anger, materialism and hypocrisy. And this designed-to-discomfort drama’s obsession with parasitic disease — both sexual and pestulant — is certainly a provocative way to theatricalize various levels of internal moral bankruptcy on the part of the chattering classes.

But this is a little kid played by a real little kid. And to say that this image — repeated and discussed several times from different angles — is of questionable taste is to put it mildly. At the very least, one’s head tends immediately to exit from the fictional reality of the moment to ponder its effect on the young actress(es), even if they do keep their back to the audience.

This whole kiddie-itch business might well be why fewer Steppenwolf patrons remained in the theater during the second act than were present in the first. And Steppenwolf subscribers don’t give up easily.

Such a shocking stage image — one of very few these days that retain their capacity to shock — has to be earned. In other words, an audience has to be made to feel that contemplating a child’s pseudosexual rash is imperative if one is to understand why Norris’ self-serving, cliche-spewing pinot-noir liberals are the way they are.

Edward Albee has often made a viable case for such images. But at first viewing, at least, that’s not the feeling here. And as a result, this (and much else about this troubled, tough-to-love play and its troubled, tough-to-love premiere production) feels like fake, self-destructive over-reaching. This whole enterprise needs more truth and fewer shocks. Only then might it earn tolerance for its unpleasant, exploitational metaphors.

Norris’ complex, idea-driven drama is not without its strengths. The work’s rumbling sense of anger and dislocation, and the playwright’s complex exploration of the reasons for liberal impotence, are highly compelling. In many ways, the play is a portrait of illiberal liberalism — the tendency of the NPR-loving classes to be especially clueless in the face of global suffering. Norris seems to be saying that envying these terrible people is absurd. But that doesn’t stop most of the world from doing precisely that.

The best and most original aspect of the play is that the main events here — a family Thanksgiving wherein all goes to hell — are told in flashback as a cabdriver (James Vincent Meredith) sits in the living room, in the present, and listens. The point is to present boorish American behavior in an internationalist context.

Seemingly non-American and definitely the proverbial “other,” the driver is not the only non-American present onstage as brothers Clay (Zak Orth) and Cash (Tracy Letts), mother Carol (Jayne Houdyshell), Clay’s wife Kelly (Marianne Mayberry) and their aforementioned daughter all fight and kvetch between eating, drinking and halfhearted child-rearing.

Cash has brought along his Eastern European girlfriend, Kalina (Kate Arrington). At first her crass sexuality and materialistic attitude offend her boyfriend’s family, who view her as tacky. But then we learn she’s been the victim of terrible atrocities. The liberals have no clue how to handle that. Norris uses their (and our) discomfort to turn the moral paradigm on its head.

The cabby’s presence is explained only at the end, which lends the play a provocative narrative tension. That’s all well and good.

But the problems here — both in the play and in Anna D. Shapiro’s complacent staging — do not flow from the surfeit of ideas but from the chronic lack of honesty. The whole affair has a certain stylish smugness, but also a woeful lack of awareness of how life — even theatricalized life — is lived.

The minor characters, such as Letts’ deliciously amoral plastic surgeon, are drawn and performed with veracity and substance. But when it comes to the relationships — especially the parenting relationships — within the nuclear family at the play’s core, events are not credible even for a second. And since Shapiro’s production purports to be living within at least the penumbra of realism, that’s a debilitating problem.

Orth takes the bile-spewing Clay way over the top, even as his wife (more honestly played by Mayberry) is chronically underwritten. You just cannot believe the way the couple handles their baby or the way they deal with their daughter. No parent — satanic or otherwise — would operate in such a fashion.

As a result, these messed-up souls become mere ciphers, mere placeholders for ideas, vessels for theatrical manipulation. And when their daughter — more accurately, their idea of a daughter — is used and abused in this fashion, you find yourself ready to explode.

The Pain and the Itch

Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago; 500 seats; $60 top

Production

A Steppenwolf Theater production of a play in two acts by Bruce Norris. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro.

Creative

Sets, Dan Ostling; costumes, Janice Pytel; lighting, James F. Ingalls; sound, Robert Milburn, Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, Robert Satterlee. Opened July 10, 2005. Reviewed July 12. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Clay - Zak Orth Kelly - Mariann Mayberry Cash - Tracy Letts Carol - Jayne Houdyshell Kalina - Kate Arrington Kayla - Lillian Almaguer/ Darragh Quinn Dolan Mr. Hadid - James Vincent Meredith

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