STANLEY ANDERSON and Richard Bauer have spent a combined 21 years at Arena Stage, acting small roles as well as large ones, appearing in plays they hated as well as plays they loved, and doing their level best to ignore visions of stardom in New York or Hollywood.

Both men, although committed to the concept of ensemble theater, have stood out from time to time -- the usually frazzled, laugh-provoking Bauer in "Pantagleize," in "Zalmen or the Madness of God" and in "You Can't Take It With You"; the soberer, more heroically carved Anderson in "Duck Hunting" in "Death of a Salesman" and in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." But they have probably never given performances any meatier or more attention-getting than in Arena's production of "Emigres," an alternately wild and gloomy absurdist parable (by Polish exile Slawomir Mrozek, directed by Romanian Liviu Ciulei) about two Eastern European exiles in a dank West German basement.

In "Emigres," Bauer and Anderson are as enthrallingly incompatible as Tweety and Sylvester. But when the two actors were intereviewed one non-working afternoon last week, their real-life dialogue revealed a more sympathetic pair of spirits -- and intriguing insights into the psychology and metabolism of a full-time, committed member of a resident theater company.

Question: Why have you chosen to work in Washington and at Arena Stage?

BAUER: When I was being educated, that was the hope of a whole school of actors -- to work in a resident theater . . . You do get an itch [to leave]. I think a number of actors get an itch here and sometimes it's very hard to control, but I found out after each time [away] that what I really want to do is just come back here. There's a trust and a quality of work that's just difficult to find elsewhere. I've gotten calls from New York to come up and audition. One that came through was, "Would you come up and audition for Woody Allen?" I said "No, I can't, because I think it's going to conflict with a play that I'm going into rehearsal for." And Halo (Bauer's wife, actress Halo Wines) said, "You ass! Why don't you just go up and meet him?" And then I thought, well, it's the train fare and the time in New York, and on top of it I normally dress in blue . . . A week later I found out from Parade magazine that the color Woody Allen hates the most is blue.

ANDERSON: This is truly our home right now. It's not just a job location. It's our home and we treet it as such. If there are problems here we try and react as members of a family . . . There are not that many theaters that have a company concept in this country any more. ACT [in San Francisco] still does. But the Guthrie [in Minneapolis], they're finding it impossible to keep a company. Even for six months.

BAUER: We've been drained every summer, and you have now pretty much a mature company here. You don't really have the influx of young blood that wants to stay for a period of time . . .

ANDERSON: Zelda [Arena's cofounder and producing director Zelda Fichandler] was very important in terms of my choice because she's a very committed lady and her commercialism quotient is very low as compared to the other theaters . . . Many actors whom I consider to be among the finest in America will not leave New York because they're hoping for that next show. So they just don't exercise, they don't use their talent. They just have not grown.

BAUER: All the energy is going into dressing, working over monologues or getting known, going to readings. Two, three callbacks and not getting it . . . I've seen some of the most psycho people and some of the saddest people in my life.

ANDERSON: People who have talent.

BAUER: I never understood how easily New York actors would renege on commitments until I got into the situation. You go to six readings a week and they're very excited about you and you don't hear anything for three months, and then you hear the play's going into rehearsal without you and you never even got a thank-you call. So you're like hundreds and hundreds of minnows and they just keep dangling and dangling these things and then they're upset when you come close and you don't bite . . . I've seen some of the most vicious, cruel things done in that element of terror. I've seen shows destroyed just because there's so many bucks on the line.

ANDERSON: A show will go from here and the producers will say we've got to do more, we've got to do it bigger, more colorful.

BAUER: Glitz.

Well, how is sanity faring at Arena?

BAUER: We've got our quotient of crazies . . .

ANDERSON: I'm going to name them. [He doesn't, and turns more serious.] Here I think there's more of a feeling that your talent is respected . . . As long as I'm learning and growing in one way or another, I'm happy. The minute I stop doing that, that's when I guess I fly.

What is an actor's life like in Washington? Where do you live? Do you own your homes?

ANDERSON: I'm out in Oxon Hill. I'm a homeowner, a child-bearer . . .

BAUER (defensively): We're Amurrican.

ANDERSON: Yeah, I have a lawn.

BAUER: I voted yesterday. I may not be a homeowner but I have a neighborhood.I live in Southwest Washington. My children are 12 and 9.They're in private school. The tuition just doubled last year.

ANDERSON: I have a child, a singular child. He'll be 6 on Monday. And my wife works with an environmental consulting firm. She quit acting several years ago. We feel, ah, almost normal. We have dogs. We have tropical fish. A yard . . .

BAUER: Well, why shouldn't we have what everybody else has? I mean why shouldn't we be . . .

ANDERSON: Be happy.

BAUER: We haven't gotten everything yet. We still work six days a week. I'd give anything for a five-day week.

But what about those long summer vacations?

BAUER: Vacation means you have the money to go along with it. One of the biggest questions of the summer is how much work do you have to do so that you can have some time off.

How about supplemental income?:

ANDERSON: There's the acting workshop, which we've been working on during the summers. We don't earn much money, but we continue to ply our craft.

BAUER: Stanley and Halo and Mark [Hammer] founded it.

ANDERSON: And we run it every summer for five weeks. We'll be running it this summer for five weeks in Boston and five weeks here . . .

BAUER: And when we can, most of us are AFTRA [members of the TV and radio actors' union] and we do voice-over work [for commercials], but we're simply freelancers and we're under a problem of the amount of time we have to spend here at the theater. So that's a hassle.

ANDERSON: There's a dilemma in that the more work you do at the theater, the less time you have to work elsewhere.

Doesn't more work at Arena mean more money?

BAUER: No.

ANDERSON: We're on a salary.

BAUER: Thank God.

ANDERSON: Otherwise, nobody would want to do the small parts.

How does it help -- or does it -- to have an Eastern European director directing an Eastern European play?

BAUER: I think it does, because the tendency would be to look at it in a very political sence and Liviu did not see it so much about a political problem as about a social problem. Which is an international one . . .

ANDERSON: He's a true genius. A complete charmer. A true Renaissance man.

BAUER: Softspoken with a will of iron.

ANDERSON: He is one of the most obstinate men I have dealt with. It's the most painful process to work with him because you feel you can never achieve what he wants. On the other hand, he's doing exactly what you hope any director will do which is to pull you and stretch you in ways you've never been pulled or stretched.

BAUER: If his brain could be put down on paper, you would see blueprints to a fraction of an inch of what something must be . . . It can be maddening, but sometimes I find that the structure is so thorough that it's like learning your way through the Versailles Palace. And you say, "I can never do it." But Versailles is not going to move, so you are going to learn the way, and when you get into a later point there is incredible freedom . . . He lets certain windows open because he knows there's a possibility of something new that he had not thought about. He will work with you for weeks on something and then say, "Let us forget that." And it's because it doesn't work here, or we can't accomplish it. I mean it's like taking a dog and shoving its head in water. The damn thing's not going to drink. Other times the dog will drink . . . But he admires American actors a great deal. When his company came [Ciulei's Bulandra Theater performed here a year ago], we had great fun trading Liviu stories.

ANDERSON: In another show, I had to take a gun and pretend as though it could be fired. And Liviu said, "I cannot teach my actors to hold a gun like that. They will not hold a gun like a real gun. American actors just do it!"

BAUER: The wonderful thing I loved about "Leonce and Lena" was this. His company had been doing it for 10 years, maybe, in rep. They told us that after he did "Leonce and Lena" here, there were a number of things which the Americans came up with which he got very excited about. He went back and pulled them back into rehearsal and said, "Now you must do this. This is what the Americans did." And they fought and they cried and they screamed and they said, "Liviu, they're Americans. We can't do it." And he had to renounce. Renounce is his favorite word. "We will renounce this." They said they were ready to kill. They said, "The hatred we had for your people was so strong in those rehearsals . . ."

ANDERSON: We felt the same way about them.

BAUER: But we had a wonderful time together. They discovered frisbee. We discovered that Romanians are all Latins, they're as crazy as loons.

Is the Eastern European sense of humor different from ours?

ANDERSON: They have more of an appreciation of black humor than we do. Do you remember that wonderful Russian joke? The rabbits are all running . . .

BAUER: Yes, there were just hundreds and hundreds of rabbits rushing to the border, and one rabbit was standing there watching them go by, and he said, "Wait a minute! What's happening?" And one of the other rabbits said, "We're fleeing the country!" And he said, "Why?" And the other rabbit said, "They're rounding up all the foxes." And he said, "But your're not a fox!" And the other rabbit said, "Yeah, but how can I prove it?"

ANDERSON: It's very painful humor. It comes from a lot of rounding-up going on.

BAUER: But the thing that is very frustrating is this. As soon as people hear here that it's an Eastern European play, there is an automatic sense of shades going down all over the city.

ANDERSON: The title "Emigres" is part of it.

BAUER: Dark humor. Two characters speaking for 2 1/2 hours. You go, "Uh oh!"

And isn't "Emigres" in fact a fairly pessimistic play?

BAUER: At the end of the play there is a great bleakness . . . but in those eight hours those men spend together there is such promise and such despair. I'm genuinely delighted at how much humor there is in the play.

ANDERSON: I kept looking for the relationship between the mind and the body. Assuming, as Liviu did, that in many ways Richard represents Mrozek himself, I thought of it as a monologue. It's really not a two-character play, it's a one-character play and I represent simply the body of him -- the needs, the desires.

BAUER: I used to read St. Paul a lot and there was a great desire to divorce the body from the mind. If the mind could only be free of the body, how high it could soar! In turn, the body would be so much more comfortable if it were free of the mind. But those two don't exist [apart] and when they do there is a great sense of tragedy. . . .

ANDERSON: There is a joining-up [in "Emigres"]. In that sense, I think it's affirmative. One is able to go on. There is another day ahead.