The Gate Crasher: All the Town’s a Stage

The Gate Crasher acting out at the British Ambassador's residence

On The Town | Peter Diller | December 2011 / January 2012

A hush went over the large room as the British Ambassador Simon Smith took center stage, welcoming the guests to The Residence extraordinaire that is his home. It was opening night of Rough Crossing, at Vienna’s English Theater, a play by Britain’s finest Tom Stoppard, and Simon congratulated the cast of six, and ended by proclaiming there would be no cognac. Everyone chuckled: This had been a running gag in the show and still had a bit of staying power.

I looked around: Except for a handful of the actors and the colleague I had come with, I was the youngest guy in the room. Coifs of blue and burgundy hair dotted the scene, reflecting off the low-hanging chandeliers as liveried help of a vaguely imperial ethnicity worked the room, balancing large trays of hors d’oeuvres and drinks at their shoulders. Conversations in deepening diplomatic tones rumbled past as guests mulled the room, swapping opinions on theatre, politics, and all matters in between.

I placed myself in the middle of the room, thinking to meet as many people as possible. I ended up staring blankly at a half-finished painting across the way, as a Scottish diplomat regaled us of his time in Japan … I excused myself in search of a drink and a new narrative. After locating a glass of wine, I walked down the large white staircase, through the entry hall, and out the back doors to the garden for a cigarette. The Residence, though grand, still feels intimate, even homey – but this may seemed to reflect the disarming manner of our host as much as the décor. Though the painting of a much younger Queen Elizabeth II gazing down from beside the guest book at the top of the stairs brought things quickly back into perspective.

Back in the main room, the crowd was thinning, though it was still early, with a die-hard mix of actors and diplomats still holding their own. An interesting dynamic. I stood all ears between one of the actors and the ambassador, lost in a deep philosophical conversation about cricket. After about 20 minutes, the ambassador came to, turned and asked me kindly if I had been able to follow.

"Nope," I replied, "but I smiled and nodded at all the right times."

"That’s all that matters, really," said the older actor with a laugh.

It was about that time the staff announced the last round. Having depleted the resources, we moved on en masse to Kaffee Käuzchen in the 7th District: It was mostly actors and theatre people at this bar, while everyone seemed to be basking in the chemistries created by English-starved natives meeting new friends with familiar tongues and loosening up from the preceding proceedings.

Staged in the low light from the bar and wrapped in wreathes of blue smoke, the striking brunette who represented all things woman in the male-dominated cast led conversation at her table. "We’ve been together for over a week, and I have yet to have a deeply personal conversation with any of them", she teased. "This would be impossible in a group of women." Drinks flowed as conversation carried on about group dynamics and gender styles in travelling company, and what they could do Vienna in their all-too-spare time … until, once again, it was closing time. But we weren’t finished yet. Actors and journalists don’t go down without a fight.

Another hour and another smokey bar later, again it was closing time. Was there nowhere else to get a drink at this hour, the young actors asked? At a Schnellimbiss on the Ring, an exhausted stand worker reopened and agreed to sell us our last beer of the evening.

Elated, this final fluke was our night’s triumph. On Heldenplatz, we stumbled and swayed in a circle, exchanging loud, tasteless stories and ever more eloquent eulogies to the dying Viennese night.

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