Sen. Jesse Helms is not likely to be invited to a National Theatre preview performance/cast party -- nor is anyone else who is "mean to the arts," as Alma Viator, the National Theatre's inviter, says.

But you can count on seeing members of the Senate and House Arts Caucus at almost all of the National's events.

"The evenings are wonderful," said Debbie Dingell, wife of Rep. John Dingell, a member of the Arts Caucus, standing near the strawberries and chocolate dip at the "Les Miserables" party at the Old Ebbitt Grill. "No one makes any demands on you. You can go and have a good time. Everyone in Congress loves to be invited."

In Washington, says Viator, the National's bugle blower and a theater producer herself, casting the cast party and preview performance can be as difficult as choosing performers for the theatrical event in the first place. And the protocol is as involved as seating a dinner party.

Who gets the freebie tickets and invitations? Viator has VIP tickets for 280 and she plays them close to her chest. One way to get yourself removed permanently from Viator's list is to pass on your tickets to an underling -- or accept and then not attend without providing a suitable excuse such as a declaration of war, a filibuster in the Congress or other unavoidable acts of God and government.

For the recent cast party/opening of "Les Miserables," five Cabinet members were invited and accepted, though, of course, that doesn't mean they all came. Secretary of State James Baker and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, for instance, had called from the economic summit in Houston, to say to hold their tickets, but at the last minute couldn't make it. But Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan and Secretary of Agriculture Clayton Yeutter braved the lightning and the thunder, along with Sen. Christopher Dodd, Reps. Lindy Boggs and Morris Udall, TV anchor Brit Hume and playwright Larry L. King.

"I like to invite people who dress up the house -- be they Democrats or Republicans," Viator said, as she stood at the door of "Les Miz" checking off Sen. Carl Levin and Reps. Richard Gephardt, Barbara Kennelly, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Wolpe.

An opening attracts more than the invited guests. Even an hour before curtain time, people congregate outside -- not to see the actors, but to see the audience arrive. At intermission, the audience members gawk at each other -- the aisles are full of people exiting and entering or watching those who do. After the last curtain, invited guests promenade to the atrium off the Old Ebbitt Grill for the last act -- the cast party, with the paying guests in the Ebbitt's dining room taking covert peeks.

"Though, because Washington is such a working town, not all the dignitaries go on to the cast party," Viator admits.

Yeutter did go on to "Les Miz's" party -- one of the best -- the other night. House Chaplain James Ford was there, offering to marry Kimberly Behlmann (Cosette) and Peter Gunther (Marius), the two love interests of "Les Miserables." (They didn't take him up on it.) J. Mark McVey, the actor in the role of Jean Valjean, bought orchids to bedeck his wife and mother for the party. Even the "Les Miz" children -- Lauren Jolly, Lee Marino, Lydia Ooghe and Aaron Metchik -- came, and then danced way into the night. Frances Humphrey Howard, a member of the National Theater Board, who sometimes seems to be at every party in town, was there with the Wilton Dillons.

Everyone knows of the strong kinship between acting and governing. But actors like to attend the Washington cast parties for other reasons as well. On the touring circuit, Washington is well known as a place where actors actually get to eat at the cast parties -- and the music goes on late enough to dance. "The Ebbitt is always good about bringing in more food after the cast arrives after changing," said Viator.

However, the actors -- even the stars -- often don't receive the proper helping of admiration at such affairs. At the recent "Cats" party, few of them -- including Joey Pizzi (Mistoffelees) -- were recognizable to the partygoers after they took off their elaborate costumes and makeup. At "Les Miz," Robert DuSold was almost incognito off stage, because at 30, he looks nothing at all like the relentless Javert on stage. DuSold has already played 1,000 performances as both Valjean and Javert on the road, and this fall he's going to Broadway as Javert.

The Old Ebbitt is the National's after-acts party place, not only because of the food, the location and the setting, but also because the management donates it all free for the publicity and the feeling of righteousness in promoting the arts. The Old Ebbitt, of course, is not the only generous one. Herb's, for example, gives an annual benefit for the 14th Street Theaters, as well as dozens of smaller Feed-the-Artists events. Kennedy Center parties often are held in one of the center's own restaurants or at the Watergate Hotel.

But the show isn't over when the curtain goes down on the cast party. Sometimes Son of the Cast Party is performed elsewhere. Christopher Dodd had such a good time meeting "Les Miz's" Susan Dawn Carson (Fantine), originally from Silver Spring, that he invited the stars to come up to the Hill and have lunch in the Senate Dining Room. White House aide Debbie Romasch beat him to it, by inviting the cast over to the president's back yard to watch the Fourth of July fireworks. Executive Producer Richard Jay-Alexander said he thought it was a terrific party because it made his company so happy -- and then they perform better.

But not all cast parties are so popular. Pete Herber, who stands out as the student leader, Enjolras, in "Les Miz," said, "Boston is the worst."