THE WINSLOW BOY -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through May 23.

As "The Winslow Boy" slowly unfolds the story of a two-year attempt to vindicate a schoolboy accused of petty theft, a letter to a newspaper is read aloud, in whch "Perplexed" demands to know what all the fuss is about.

The Roundtree Theater production at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater never gives "Perplexed" a satisfactory answer.

Terence Rattigan's play, a hit of the 1947 season, was based on a real case of an Edwardian boy whose family won for him the right to sue the Crown and thus obtain an open trail, rather than having to accept the summary verdict of his school superiors.

The play maked it clear that the boy's reputation had never been seriously damaged, and so the triumph is solely in the procedural victory.

This is a difficult enough point to make dramatically, when one is told that the boy himself doesn't much care about he case, and his disgrace would have remained unknown if the matter had not been pursued, because he was immediately accepted by another school willing to give him a fresh start.

But in a stagey, English drawing-room, iced-tea-in-the-veins production, however cutely "period" that may now be, the motives of people pursing principles that go against family interests take on an additionally nasty edge.

The fashionable lawyer who conducts the case, played by Remak Ramsay, is constantly accused by the boy's sister of being a cold fish. But except for that tiresome drawing-room fixture, the Comic Maid, everyone there is fishy, beginning with the sister herself, a feminist calculating the merits of marrying a man who doesn't love her or one she doesn't love, whom Giulia Pagano plays with a snappiness bordering on the haughty.

There is never a spark of warmth between the boy, stiffly -- even guiltily -- played by David Haller, and Ralph Clanton as the father who puts his life and lifelihood into the case. Elizabeth Owens makes the mother's opposition to it more a matter of her inconvenience, from which she is distracted by the interesting problem of dressing for court, rather than by the family's welfare.

These problems exist in the script, which is creaky -- every time a person wants a drink, it requires endless dialogue for the request, the agreement to get it, and the actual errand, which occasionally leaves the stage silent while the thirsty person waits for an offstage drink-fetcher to return -- but a touch of emotion could have been added, just to satisy "Perplexed."