The actors looked a little winded, Peter Sellars looked frenetic, and even if theatrical history was being made at this party to celebrate the opening play of the new American National Theater, many of the guests seemed more interested in the food, piled on tables and carts in mounds and mounds.

"How did I do?" actor John Heard asked his mother Helen as he fumbled with congratulatory telegrams. Heard played Prince Hal in ANT's first production, Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part I," which was directed by Timothy Mayer.

"You were fine, you were great," said Heard's mother, as she attempted to press a present into his hand and persuade him to pay attention to it.

"Where are the oysters?" Heard said and moved on to the food.

Earlier at the Kennedy Center, ANT director Peter Sellars received a few friends in his office during intermission and said, "It's the night that indicates we've started. We're not finished -- we've started.

"I'm, of course, driven nuts because I'm not the director and can't wait to get into rehearsals, which I will next week. It can't be Peter Sellars Theater. There have to be other people involved. After this, the next production will come as a total shock."

Shocking is one of those words people like to connect with Sellars.

They also say things like this: "He's going to make people stand up and realize that theater is related to what's going on and plays like this both illuminate and reflect contemporary issues."

That's what filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, an ANT board member, said about Sellars and "Henry IV" as he worked his way through a plate of shrimp at the party. "He'll do some very daring things," he continued. "He's not supposed to just dish out the same old junk. The action will follow him."

People at the ANT had been saying "Henry IV," a play about power and politics, was a very appropriate choice for Washington. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) obviously agreed.

"I'm not sure that 'Henry IV, Part I' was exactly what I wanted to see in the week we passed the funding for the MX," she said. "Shakespeare was trying to talk about the universals -- the craziness of war, the silliness of vanities that lose you lots of lives. Now, we've just escalated it so we lose the entire planet. From that standpoint, I think this is not what I needed. I needed Bambi or something with a happy ending."

The crowd of about 100 that gathered at the Watergate Hotel for the party included the kind of well-coiffed women and blazered men you'd expect to find at the Watergate any night. In fact, the opening night audience at the Kennedy Center had not been exactly glittering. Several rows of seats were empty and the crowd not packed with familiar faces. But the audience responded enthusiastically to the play and, as Sellars said, it was a beginning.

At the party, TV and still photographers snapped and snapped pictures of Sellars, Kennedy Center Chairman Roger Stevens and actor John McMartin, who played Henry IV. The little band of media stars moved from standing to sitting and the bulbs kept popping.

Out of the light, Folger Theatre artistic director John Neville-Andrews was ordering a drink.

"I think the idea of a national theater is really quite wonderful," he said. "I think the country needs it. It also needs a national Shakespeare company. Americans have been intimidated by the British performers. I think that's wrong. Americans can do Shakespeare quite wonderfully."

Of the new ANT, he said, "I'd like to think of this as the equivalent of the British National Theater, and we at the Folger as the equivalent of the Royal Shakespeare Company."

Also out of the camera lights was Patti LuPone, in a short black dress dripping big pearls. But cameras or no, she was being paid attention, as gushing people offered congratulations. She plays Lady Percy and, like the other actors, just wasn't going to say how she thought it went. "Opening nights are always hard," she said. "Audiences are opening night audiences."

And what did the reviewers think? Although critics from all the major media were in the audience last night, at the request of the theater reviews will not appear until Friday, so everyone will just have to wait.

A few young men in blue jeans and tousled hair were wandering amid the waiters. "I met him in about 1978," said actor Brian McCue of Sellars. They've been doing professional shows for years, but parties at the Watergate? That was something new.

"I think this is very unusual," McCue said. "And it's very weird to move into such a bizarre, imperial place as the Kennedy Center."

Most of the people at the party were, like McCue, Sellars enthusiasts.

"There are lots of very important people across the country who want to work with Peter," said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Wisdom Bridge Theater in Chicago. Falls himself is currently discussing plans with Sellars for a joint project.

"This needs to be exciting," he said of the ANT, "and have energy and challenge people and I think that's what Peter wants to do. He wants to challenge people and also have a good time."