MEASURE FOR MEASURE -- At the Folger through November 23.

Promiscuity and prostitution are blatantly and universally practiced, and heaven only knows what it is that people are smoking on the sidewalk. Everybody talks dirty, and the chief topic of conversation is malicious personal gossip about the prominent, combined with a lot of name-dropping. The leader can't lead, and the great crusader against crime is secretly indulging in the same vices he denounces and punishes.

This is the "Vienna" of William Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure," now being done by the Folger Theater Group.Any resemblance to other times or places is coincidental. However, there may be some current interest in the answer of how to govern such a society.

Shakespeare's answer is a combination of justice and mercy, and while he has put it elsewhere, "Measure for Measure" has some beautiful speeches on the subject. It also recommends a little "leniency to lechery," on the idea that anybody who tries to legislate strict sexual morality is only making unmanageable trouble for himself and everybody else.

What makes this play difficult to do, in spite of its delicious milieu, is the fact that the three main characters are insufferable. Director Roger Hendricks Simon has chosen to do the main story more or less seriously, so that the commedy -- richly provided by Floyd King, David Cromwell and John Neville-Andrews -- is intermittent, rather than pervasive. Even one potentially comic scene, in which a longtime resident of death row declines to be executed, is played straight.

This means that you have to overlook some extremely unattractive behavior on the part of the hero and heroine, and accept them as models of virtue.Both truely believe that execution is a just punishment for fornication. Isabella brags incessantly about her chasity, and has to be prodded several times during her fine plea for mercy because she really believe that her brother is getting what's coming to him for the crime of impregnating his fiancee. The Duke, who professes to love Isabella, thinks its a cute courtship trick to tell her that her brother has already been executed -- just to see her grateful face when she finds out it isn't true. Nice folks.

Brenda Curtis, as Isabella, actually manages, through charismatic earnestness, to make this herione likeable. If we had been allowed to laugh at her foible, however, she might have been lovable. But Justin Deas only adds to the problem of the duke. Misusing his sonorous voice to rant and ridicule (not to mention garbling lines), he either rushes about looking crazed or lounges around like the local bawds. It seems unimaginable that people accept him as a beloved leader or as the friar whose disguise he assumes, and impossible for an audience to accept him as a hero.

It is a distraction from the everyday problems of government when the thought of impeachement keeps intruding.