THOUGH "The Children's Hour," Lillian Hellman's 1934 Broadway playwriting debut, seems relatively formal and melodramatic now, it remains gripping at the core, and its cautionary moral is self-evidently relevant.

In director Dorothy Neumann's earnest, capable production at the Jewish Community Center, Hellman's no-nonsense style moves us swiftly through the story of young Mary Tilford, a malicious, chronic fibber who, in retaliation for a minor punishment, instigates a whisper campaign intimating a lesbian relationship between Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the two founding headmistresses of a rural New England girl's school. The prurient innuendo spreads and stains permanently, ruining careers and personal lives.

"You're not playing with paper dolls," Karen's fiance warns Mary, while trying to extract a retraction. "You're playing with human lives." Hellman's point -- about our power to harm others by pointing a finger, our all-too- human willingness to believe the worst, and our corresponding moral responsibility to be decent and not judgmental -- foreshadowed her own appearance years later before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Director Dorothy Neumann builds momentum and keeps the dry and delicate situation pulse-poundingly taut till the slightly maudlin, everything-at-once ending. Mary Ellen Nester's admirable restraint as headmistress Wright suggests more depth to the character than exists in the script, and Amy Austin is a model case of emotional repression as her partner. Jane Beard looks a bit old for the part of the little viper Mary, but finally convinces as the teen tyrant who terrorizes the other girls into acquiescence.

As Aunt Lily Mortar, Betsy Nuell overemphasizes the character's ridiculousness and undercuts the emotional effectiveness of the final scene. Neumann gets good performances from the supporting cast of school-age girls, with particularly confident work from Liz Croyden and Deborah Stromberg as Mary's schoolmates and unwitting accomplices.

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR -- At the Jewish Community Center through February 9.