IF ANYTHING can help keep the foundering Folger Theater afloat, it may be this clever current production of "Much Ado About Nothing," seemingly designed to draw a new and broader audience for one of Shakespeare's wittiest confections.

Director John Neville-Andrews has placed the play in the '30s, and the players aboard a luxury liner (Messina, Italy has become the Deco-drenched S.S. Messina), adding a veneer of Hollywood glitter, madcap movie slapstick, and the moods of that era's timeless music.

Though Neville-Andrews keeps his idea afloat for the most part, things get off to a slow start. At times this seems Shakespeare done by Aaron Spelling, as the passengers board a highbrow "Love Boat."

But till actors and audience find their footing and the play resurfaces -- in the second act -- there is much pleasure to be found in William Barclay's multilevel set, a handsomely appointed vessel gleaming with brass and glossy surfaces. Crew's quarters, staterooms, ballrooms and lounge -- all fit into the limited space with Barclay's inventive use of a turntable stage. John Carver Sullivan's costumes, too, are elegant and period-perfect.

The Bard soon adjusts to his new era, and Neville-Andrews finally fits the play into the ship's shape, thanks largely to the incandescent acting of Mikel Lambert and Roderick Horn as the two determinedly single "witcrackers" duped into falling in love. Lambert plays brittle, bitchy Beatrice and Horn is her sparring partner, the verbally athletic Benedick. Along with Steven Crossley, an elegant and arch Don Pedro, they justify Neville-Andrews' conceit, which transforms Shakespeare's characters into self-consciously witty socialites a la Noel Coward (who, you will remember, set his romantic comedy "Anything Goes" aboard an ocean liner).

Also notable is Tara Hugo as Hero, the maid falsely accused. And the play's bountiful buffoonery is well-served by Jim Beard's familiar turn as bumbling Dogberry, master of the malaprop. Richard Hart provides another of his determinedly bizarre performances as Dogberry's stooge, Verges.

Much of the evening's ample charm is due to music director Rob Bowman, who, as Balthasar, now the ship's lounge pianist, underlines the emotions with the "Fascinatin' Rhythms" of the '30s, plus several of his own stylish settings.

The Folger's is the first of two "Much Ados" to open in town this week -- the other, by Britain's esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company, opens Friday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The contrast between the two versions -- transmuted and traditional -- should be fascinating. MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING -- At the Folger Theater through March 10.