COLD STORAGE by Ronald Ribman; directed by Ron Lagomarisino; scenery by Karl Eisgti; costumes by Marjorie Slaiman; lighting by William Mintzer; technical director, Henry R. Gorfein. With Terrence Currier, Raquel Valadez and Robert Prosky.

At Arena Stage in repertory through May 3.

If ever anyone talked like a bigot, Joseph Parmigian talks like a bigot. He spends a good part of the first act of "Cold Storage," which opened at Arena Stage last night, slandering Puerto Ricans in general and Puerto Rican nurses in particular -- until a fellow patient criticizes him and Parmigian suddenly announces that he belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union. A person can't be a bigot and a member of the ACLU at the same time, he points out.

The audience is not alone in being taken aback. The fellow patient, as incredulous as we are promptly demands to see Parmigian's ACLU card.

"I got it right here in my wallet," Parmigian replies, "which I have right here because I can't leave it in my room because of the lousy Puerto Ricans."

But when he produces the card, it attests to membership in the B'nai B'rith, not the ACLU, even though Parmigian is Armenian, not Jewish. Elsewhere in this third installment of Arena's "Carousel of New Plays," we learn that the tough-talking Parmigian, who runs a fruit-and-vegetable stand for a living, has read "The Faerie Queene" twice.

Obviously, playwright Ronald Ribman is a man who enjoys a little irony. Or a big irony. Or any kind of irony. "Cold Storage," a Broadway succes d'estime of a few years back, is constantly switching moods and viewpoints on us -- constantly sliding from a gag into a piece of flowery philosophy and back again. The question is, what lies behind allthese reversals and shenanigans? Are they games people play, or just games playwrights play?

The play has one unambiguous virtue from Arena's perspective -- a juicy part, well-made for Robert Prosky. And Prosky is giving an extremely diverting performance as Parmigian, despite some flubbed lines and other signs of inadequate rehearsal. He couldn't do that much more convincing a job, in fact, if the character actually made sense.

Terrence Currier has a less happy time with the other main character, a sober Jewish fine-arts dealer who checks into the hospital for "exploratory surgery" and meets Parmigian on the roof terrace. Currier seems utterly baffled about what to make of his frequent journeys into wistful reminiscence and free-verse metaphysics -- and that makes two of us.

"Cold Storage" belongs, unavoidably, to a long'70s tradition of plays about mortality and coming to terms with same. It has become progressively harder, as a result, to feel shock or distress when we meet a terminal patient on stage. There is a greater burden on playwright, director and cast to persuade us that we are truly in the presence of death rather than a dramatic device that goes by that name. "Cold Storage" is simply not very persuasive.