IN THIS TIME OF games and circuses Kenneth Tynan is our arbiter of taste. Slim and casually dapper, a sun-worshipper (favorite city -- Valencia, Spain), possessed of a mordant wit and a gift for anecdote and mimicry, advocate of the three freedoms (sexual, political, artistic), he seems to know all the fabulous performers of two continents. In his latest book, Show People: Profiles in Entertainment, he writes about five of them: actor Sir Ralph Richardson, playwright Tom Stoppard, talk show host Johnny Carson, comedian Mel Brooks and 1920s actress Louise Brooks. They are, he tells us, some of the people he would invite to his ideal dinner party.

That party has been on Tynan's mind at least since the early 1950s. He started compiling the guest list in one of his first books, Persona Grata, an alphabetical album of "characters." There, in a paragraph or a page Tynan evoked the distinctive tang of -- to take only the C's -- Truman Capote, Cyril Connolly and Noel Coward. Like his five "show people," such figures possess the glamor that comes when personal style is melded with artistic craftsmanship, what the Spanish call duende -- "the ability to transmit a profoundly felt emotion to an audience of strangers with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of restraint."

Tynan's association with entertainers capable of such "high definition performance" has marked the still-rising arc of his spectacular career. After graduating from Oxford, where he lived in Oscar Wilde's rooms, he took the post of drama critic for the London Observer -- at age 24. Throughout the '50s he reviewed plays regularly, becoming notorious for an ability to characterize (or deflate) an actor with a phrase, and to locate any play within the tradition of European drama. By the end of the decade he was being acclaimed the most brilliant drama critic since Bernard Shaw. Edmund Wilson went so far as to say that the two chief pleasures of English journalism were Connolly's book column and Tynan's play reviews.

After 10 years of writing criticism Tynan was appointed literary manager of Britain's newly established National Theater. With Sir Laurence Olivier he managed to push drama in new directions, promoting the work of young playwrights like Stoppard and bringing forth such great performances as Olivier's Othello. (When Orson Welles heard that Olivier was to play Orthello, he exclaimed to Tynan that the role demanded a baritone and that Sir Laurence was a natural tenor. Soon afterwards, England's greatest actor began to take voice lessons; by the time of the play's first rehearsals Olivier's voice was a full octave lower than anyone had ever heard it.)

In the '70s Tynan moved into new fields: he produced the succes de scandale, Oh! Calcutta!, he helped out Roman Polanski with his film of Macbeth, and eventually he came to The New Yorker, where these profiles originally appeared.

Readers familiar with Tynan's earlier pen portraits -- of figures like Nicol Williamson in The Sound of Two Hands Clapping or of Miles Davis and Orson Welles in Tynan Right and Left -- will know what to expect here: an immense enthusiasm and sympathy, a reporter's eye for detail, a director's ability to set a scene, and a gift for telling imagery. "If the conversation edges toward areas in which [Johnny Carson] feels ill at ease or unwilling to commit himself, burglar alarms are triggered off, defensive reflexes rise around him like an invisible stockade, and you hear the distant baying of guard dogs."

Tynan has always been a personal critic, an appreciator like Connolly (the critic he most resembles), a man of enthusiasms. Although his writing in Show People is as vivid as ever, the essays themselves are much looser in structure than his previous work. (Perhaps this reflects the influence of California where he now lives.) The pieces meander, the scenes are leisurely set for questioning or repartee, whole sections purport to be transcribed notes. Two noticeable quirks include a tendency to drop articles ("with ring like searchlight"), a technique characteristic of the note-taker and Varity, and a recurrent use of anticipatory phrases ("as we shall see later," "to which we'll return"). Tynan also digresses readily, especially to get in a good remark: "I get memory flash of cable sent to me by Gore Vidal when he agreed to accept my younger daughter as godchild: 'Always a godfather, never a god.'" Or again, "The occasion was about as festive -- to borrow a phrase dear to Laurence Olivier -- as a baby's open grave." These stylistic traits make Show People occasionally cinematic (appropriate for Hollywood types), but usually the main effect is that of excellent dinner party conversation, the kind we dream of making, a joy to overhear:

"[Harold] Pinter has two facial expressions, which alternate with alarming rapidity. One of them, his serious mask, suggests a surgeon or dentist on the brink of making a brilliant diagnosis. The head tilts to one side, the eyes narrow shrewdly, the brain seems to whirr like a computer. His stare drills into your mind. His face, topped by shiny black hair, is sombre, intent, profoundly concerned. When he smiles, however, it is suddenly and totally transformed. 'Smile' is really the wrong word: what comes over his face is unmistakably a leer. It reveals gleaming, voracious teeth, with a good deal of air between them, and their owner resembles a stand-up comic who has just uttered a none too subtle sexual innuendo. At the same time, the eyes pop and lasciviously swivel."

Notwithstanding their infectious charm, there is something missing from these essays. Where the younger Tynan's voice was passionate, it is now laid-back. A focus on surface brilliance replaces an interest in ideas and the old polemical bite. The advocacy of political and sexual freedom is subdued. (There are remnants of the political in the Stoppard piece, where Tynan alternates between Stoppard's career and that of Czech dramatist Vaclav Havel, and of the openly sexual in the conversations with the ever-entrancing Louise Brooks, who used to play "the simple unabashed hedonist, whose appetite for pleasure is so radiant that even when it causes suffering to herself and others we cannot find it in ourselves to reproach her.") Tynan the sensualist seems to have driven out some of Tynan the intellectual and left his prose a little looser, more self-indulgent than it used to be. Where too is the outrageousness of that essay in praise of backsides, "Meditations on Basic Baroque"? Tynan reportedly kept a sign above his desk that read, "Be light, stinging, insolent and melancholy." In Show People, he is only the first.

And yet, paradoxically, I would call this the most readable of his books. The earlier ones, such as Curtains or Tynan Right and Left, were composed of brief reviews and occasional pieces that encouraged dipping and skipping; they remain the kind of collections one reads in and is never quite sure one has finished. But these profiles, by their length (50-60 pages), are exactly right for a single sitting, for a long lunch (omelette, melon, coffee) or for that restless hour before bedtime.

Kenneth Tynan once described himself as "a student of craftmanship, with a special passion for imaginative craftsmen." These pieces allow one to share his passion, and to admire -- as people have for 30 years -- the gifts of a splendid writer, still our finest connoisseur of the performing arts.