Is there honor among thieves? Of course there is. Not only honor but pettiness, loyalty, snobbery, guilt and, before you know it, all the admirable and despicable traits that afflict humans in general. This discovery has been paying comic dividends for at least a couple of thousand years, and it is paying them again, handsomely, at Arena Stage, where David Mamet's "American Buffalo" opened last night.

Probably no recent American play has been produced more often or more widely in the last five years than this rambunctious diary of a day in the lives of three very small-time Chicago hoods. It's easy to see why. One simple set, three meaty characters and laughs stacked up like the planes over National Airport -- what more could a theater ask for? But Arena has given as good as it has got with this added starter to the 1980-81 season. In his first full-fledged assignment as a director, Robert Prosky shows he has learned a lot from his 23 years as a member of the Arena company. This is a play that abounds with opportunities to go wrong, but Prosky keeps a delicate balance of comedy and paths throughout, prodding a joke but never squeezing it, giving a serious moment just the emotional weight it can carry and no more.

And he has a fine cast at his disposal. As the high-strung Teach, Stanley Anderson gives a gracefully frenetic, hugely funny performance full of detail that awards close attention. Teach is continually tripping on his pretensions, and Anderson gets all the humor that is to be had from the character's posturing while keeping his dignity intact. (Of all the choice moments in Anderson's performance, my favorite is when, after delivering a pompous speech about the need to be professional in all things, he picks up the phone to see if a potential burglary victim is home, dials the wrong number, completely muffs the line he had planned to speak if anyone answered, and slams the receiver down in panic.)

If Teach would not be the first person you'd take along with you on a heist, Bobby would be the last. Bobby is the sort of helpless schlemiehl who, given some moeny and an invitation to "Get yourself something to eat," responds by asking, "What?" He is also a junkie and a severe test of a fellow criminal's patience.The thought of him as a burglar is preposterous -- except that his feelings would be hurt if someone else went in his place.

Kevin Donovan is nerve-wrackingly brilliant in the role. You can't help laughing at his strung-out futility, and you're never entirely comfortable about it. Not that anyone is going to confuse "American Buffalo" with "The Connection" or "The Man With the Golden Arm," but Donovan treats the character with a seriousness that fits surprisingly well even when the action ranges toward farce.

As Donny, the fence and proprietor of the second-hand store where the play transpires, Mark Hammer provides solid counterpoint for Anderson and Donovan. His performance wears a bit thin toward the end, but the respect and coordination among all three players is always impressive, and the timing is always right.

"American Buffalo" is being performed cabaret-style, and on a strangely frivolous set, in Arena's Old Vat Room (in rotation with Stephen Wade's "Bango Dancing"). As such, it seems almost like an afterthought on the Arena schedule, but it is a very commendable afterthought indeed.

American Buffalo by David Mamet; directed by Robert Prosky; setting by Lance Pennington; costumes by Sandra Yen Fong; lighting by Nancy Schertler; with Mark Hammer, Kevin Donovan and Stanley Anderson.

At Arena Stage through June 7.