"The Visit" is a rigorous play, far more rigorous than you might suspect from the production that is currently running at the Studio Theatre.

Its central observation -- that every one of us is willing to put our ideals on the auction block, if only the bidding goes high enough -- may be something of a commonplace. But Swiss playwright Friedrich Duerrenmatt has amplified it into a chilling little drama of revenge and cynicism.

The pieces alternately suggest a medieval morality play, the German cabaret in the 1930s and a fantastic comic book caper. In short, there is a mother lode of theatricality here just waiting to be struck. Joy Zinoman, who has directed the Studio production, scratches away at the surface, sometimes with interesting results. But one can't help wishing she'd plunged deeper. This could have been a daring show; instead, it is only absorbing by fits and starts.

The play is set in the economically ailing town of Guellen, and its residents, proud but impoverished, are awaiting the visit of Claire Zachanassian (Robin Deck). Although she left years ago in shame and penury, she has since become the world's richest woman and is presumably returning to put her home town back on its feet.

An awesome creature, who is transported in a sedan chair by a pair of thugs, smokes pungent cigars, and keeps a panther as a pet, Claire has an icy deal to propose. She will bestow one billion marks on the townsfolk in exchange for the death of Anton Schill (Timothy Rice), the town's most beloved citizen, who once wronged her in her youth. When the citizens react indignantly, she arches her head, confident of the persuasive might of her bank account, and snaps, "I can wait."

With a steely sense of irony, Duerrenmatt traces the slow erosion of the town's ideals, the fraudulent rationales that creep into the daily conversations and the inevitable perversion of justice. What, after all, is honor, when you can trade it in for a chocolate bar or a new pair of shoes?

The best performance in this production -- that of Sarah Marshall as a pathetically mousy schoolteacher -- is situated squarely on the horns of the evening's fundamental dilemma. Hating the injustice that is about to be perpetrated, and hating herself because she knows that eventually, she, too, will cooperate, Marshall is arresting in her impotence.

Deck brings an exalted superiority to the role of Claire Zachanassian. Dressed in a wedding gown (her eighth!) and coolly surveying the barn in which she once lost her innocence, Deck evokes the rather terrifying image of a modern-day Cleopatra on the cusp of middle age. Tom Allen and Rick Venable, as a pair of blind musicians in her entourage, add a distinctly surrealistic note. And Glenn Taylor, Irwin Ziff and Alice O'Connor are notable presences in the throng.

The Studio's problems do not lie entirely with Timothy Rice, although he is entirely too stolid as the scapegoat, Anton Schill. Alfred Lunt, who created the role on Broadway in 1958, took the character's fear to such a point that he literally soiled himself at the height of his panic. Rice's Schill is more of a stoic, and the approach mitigates some of the play's effectiveness.

The chief drawbacks, however, are directorial. Zinoman seems to have worked little corners of the production at the expense of the overall picture. She is not very adept at handling crowds or shaping bold stage patterns. "The Visit" should gather momentum, relentlessly, like a bad dream. At the Studio, it tends to lurch from the clutter of one scene to the clutter of the next.

Still, even in this less than fully realized staging, Duerrenmatt's dark fable retains much of its power to unsettle. Nothing, it says, is beyond the reach of money. Not only can it strip us of our ideals, but it can also seduce us into thinking that our brute nakedness is, in fact, a perfectly honorable garment.

THE VISIT, by Friedrich Duerrenmatt. Adapted by Maurice Valency; directed by Joy Zinoman; sets, Russell Metheny; costumes, Jane Phelan; lighting, Greg Basdavanos; original music, Robert Martin.

With Robin Deck, Glenn Taylor, Richard Hart, Tom Allen, Rick Venable, Timothy Rice, Irwin Ziff, Sarah Marshall, Richard Smith, Alice O'Connor, Raul N. Rizik.

At the Studio Theatre Thursdays through Sundays until Nov. 1.