COLD STORAGE -- At the Kreeger Theater through May 3, in rotating repertory with "The Child" and "Disability: A Comedy."

On the carousel of calamities in rotation at Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater, cancer takes the brass ring, while paralysis and abortion should be allowed to pass by as quickly as possible.

"Cold Storage" by Ronald Ribman, a conversation between two cancer patients, is the third play in this collection of catastrophic complaints, joining "Disability: A Comedy" by Ron Whyte, which is about a morose quadriplegic sniping at the confines of his world, and "The Child" by Anthony Giardina, about a selfishly self-righteous couple and the ditto phantom fetus they are debating aborting. All the subjects are dismal, but "Cold Storage" is the only one of the plays not also theatrically dreary.

The comparative liveliness of the ramblings of an embittered victim of terminal cancer, from a wheelchair he lacks the nerve to roll off the hospital roof, has two explanations. One is that this character, an Armenian fruit-and-vegetable dealer whose enthusiastic bigotry is supplemented by a pocketful of membership cards in liberal causes, has an active mind that wanders from his plight outwards to a crazily intriguing view of the universe and its probable lack of meaning. The other reason is Robert Prosky, who plays this exasperating character with such maddening insistence that one cannot help yielding to the demand to get involved in his impossible mental adventures.

Here is an embodiment of paradoxical life, cancerous though it is, as opposed to the stick figures labeled with their flags of this trouble or that, in the other plays. One feels that the fruit-and-vegetable man has a right to life -- not because he has any virtue or contribution to make, but because he is alive; he has squatter's rights on earth.

Unfortunately, the play's other character has caught what's going around on this carousel, and stiffly symbolizes death-in-life, as an inflexible foil to the chief character's life-in-death. Terrence Currier plays a patient having exploratory surgery and still hoping, but whose pathetic task it is to bring up the non sequitur of how cancer compares to the Holocaust. His other function is to listen to those nuttily imaginative ravings about the nature of time, the meaning of truth and the ingratitude of mankind, allowing the audience also to do so. Perhaps it is a sufficient excuse.