“Swimming at the Ritz,” the play having its U. S. premiere at New Jersey Repertory Company, is about Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, of whom you might have heard (if you’re older than 50). The following quiz might help you decide whether or not to see it.
1) Prince Aly Khan was once married to:
a) Greta Garbo
b) Rita Hayworth
c) Leslie Howard
d) Pamela Harriman
2) Averell Harriman was:
a) A former Mayor of London
b) A former Governor of New York
c) MVP of Super Bowl XII
d) Aly Khan’s real name
3) Leland Hayward:
a) Coined the phrase “The Great White Way”
b) Produced “Mr. President” on Broadway
c) Wrote “Rosebud: A history of the Winter Olympics”
d) Was married to Leslie Howard
4) Randolph Churchill’s father was:
a) Aly Khan’s personal physician
b) Prime Minister of Britain
c) Architect of the Empire State Building
d) Track announcer at Churchill Downs
5) Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman:
a) Was Winston Churchill’s mother*
b) Was married to 3 of the 4 above
c) Admired Aly Khan’s love-making prowess
d) All of the above
If you picked b) to the first four and d) to number five, “Swimming at the Ritz” might just be your flute of Moet (and you’re probably over 50). The play is a retrospective of Pamela’s life (1920-1997), her three marriages and her numerous extra-marital affairs (Edward R. Murrow among them).
Pamela achieved a measure of reflected fame through her husbands and her paramours. She was a prodigious Democratic Party fund raiser, rewarded by President Clinton in 1993 with the Ambassadorship to France. Her legal battle with Harriman’s children over his estate was tabloid fodder in the mid-90s, but despite Leipart’s efforts to burnish her legacy, she remains a footnote to history.
“Ritz” is set in that Paris hotel’s suite (Jessica Parks’s perfect design), where, heavily in debt, Pamela is contracting with Christie’s auction house for the sale of her possessions (and where she later died after suffering a stroke while swimming in the pool).
The play is little more than an autobiographical narration, but Leipart is blessed with Judith Hawking’s terrific performance. To say she carries the play is an understatement; she is the play. Hawking, who actually bears a resemblance to her character, mines a good deal of humor and a degree of pathos. She also has fun with forays into prurience, and in what we can assume depicts her character’s, um, skills, she gives a master class in seductive flirtation. Under SuzAnne Barabas’s adroit direction, Hawking holds attention throughout, even when the repetitious material lags.
Christopher Daftsios is fine as an Italian valet who listens to and sympathizes with Madame – and who spares Ms. Hawking the burden of a two-hour monologue. Already overlong (one 90-minute act would suffice), the play doesn’t know when to end. Twice it wraps up naturally, only to be resurrected with extraneous detail. Pared down and tightened up (and with Judith Hawking on board), “Swimming at the Ritz” could have a life beyond Long Branch.
Through Feb. 1 at New Jersey Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch. Thurs. & Fri. 8pm; Sat. 3 and 8pn; Sun. 2pm. Info and tickets ($43): www.njrep.org or at 732-229-3166
*Pamela was indeed the mother of a Winston Churchill. Her son with Randolph Churchill was named for his grandfather.