Monday, January 12, 2015

Review: ‘Swimming at the Ritz’ by Charles Leipart at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch


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Reviewed by Michael T. Mooney (Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 8:00pm)

In 1950, Broadway producer Leland Hayward presented Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam, in which she played Sally Adams, a wealthy socialite appointed ambassador to a European country – in this case, Luxembourg. The character was a highly theatricalized version of real life Oklahoma native Perle Mesta. Ten years later, Hayward married wealthy socialite Pamela Digby Churchill, who, many years after his death, would be appointed ambassador to a European country – in this case, France. Both women were well-known Washington party-givers - “hostesses with the mostesses.” Now playwright Charles Leipart has created a theatrical showcase for Pamela as well, SWIMMING AT THE RITZ, currently enjoying its US premiere at NJ Rep in Long Branch.

Historically speaking, Pamela Digby, a well-heeled Dorset UK native, married Winston Churchill's only son after their first date, largely in order to provide him with an heir. Their marriage ended in 1946. Before wedding Hayward in 1960 (at the height of his success with The Sound of Music), she had a parade of paramours, most notably Fiat's Gianni Agnelli. Often described as “a modern day courtesan,” it was winkingly said that Pamela became “an expert on rich men's bedroom ceilings.” The very day of Hayward's funeral, she rekindled one of her more torrid affairs, with DC political insider W. Averell Harriman, making him her third husband in 1971. After his death, she inherited Harriman's fortune, much to the chagrin of his daughters. 

In Leipart's play we catch up with Pamela in 1995, in her suite at the Paris Ritz, as she is boxing up her copious treasures for a Christie's auction. Alone, having spent her entire fortune on luxuries, she has no one to regale with her social-climbing saga, so she turns to us – the audience – and (somewhat reluctantly), her Italian valet, Pietro. Playwright Leipart doesn't so much ignore the fourth wall as skillfully deconstruct it during the play's opening dialogue. Pietro, we learn, believes she is either talking to him or the furniture. Once we are fully in her grasp, she takes no prisoners – slyly winking to the male members in the audience (even tossing one a throw pillow) while embarking on her name-dropping romp through the social register. 

The success or failure of this two-act diatribe squarely rests on the padded shoulders of the performer playing Pamela – and Judith Hawking does not disappoint. She regally swans around her luxurious suite like a scheming doyenne on a soap opera – graceful and imperious, deliciously chewing the scenery with impeccable diction and razor sharp timing. Hawking's Pamela relishes her role as storyteller, and that energy is both irresistible and charming. Her put-upon valet Pietro (Christopher Daftsios), on the other hand, only occasionally gets in on the fun. At first he's like a shy schoolboy called to the headmistress's office – all nervous tics and downward glances. When he is eventually cajoled into role-playing as Pamela's many lovers or husbands, the tone turns wildly comic – nearly resembling a musical comedy. Not to be outdone by Irving Berlin and Ethel Merman, Leipart even concocts a song and dance moment for the pair. 

The script is peppered with names and dates, and doing the arithmetic, Pamela would be age 75 during our visit to her suite. Hawking in no way resembles a septuagenarian – even a spry one - but Leipart cleverly explains away the anomaly with the play's surreal epilogue. One thing he doesn't explain away is why Pamela is presented as so wildly theatrical. She confides to us that she is an expert listener, and claims “I never could talk.” She not only talks (for nearly two solid hours) but tells her story as if she were a giddy Tallulah Bankhead on a late night chat show. Hawking dips in and out of accents, exotic vocal inflections, and perfect pantomime like the skilled trouper she is, but her revealing banter seems to indicate that the real Pamela was a quieter presence – wielding her influence from the back room (and the bedroom) rather than in the limelight. 

Fittingly, director SuzAnne Barabas runs with the concept that this is a fantasy embodiment of Pamela, one that could only live on stage. She peppers the narrative with fantastic lighting and soundscapes that move the material firmly in the direction of the footlights. As usual, NJ Rep's production elements are first rate. The set design by Jessica Parks is an exquisite rendering of a Paris Ritz suite complete with a prop list that would intimidate a less intrepid troupe. Pamela's room is jam-packed with such objet d'art as a Toby Jug resembling Sir Winston Churchill, replicas of famous paintings by Picasso and Renoir, a silver plated drum, and a pair of throw pillows embroidered with the Digby family crest – not to mention piles of furs, jewels, and silver bric-a-brac galore. The rich-looking production also features spot-on lighting by Jill Nagle and tastefully executed costumes by Patricia E. Doherty. 

In 1950, the Playbill for Call Me Madam humorously noted that "neither the character of Mrs. Sally Adams nor Miss Ethel Merman resemble any person living or dead." SWIMMING AT THE RITZ might want to adapt a similar statement for its Playbill. Living or dead, swimming at the Ritz with Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman is a memorable experience. 

SWIMMING AT THE RITZ is onstage now through February 1 at New Jersey Repertory Company, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ. For tickets and information, visit or call 732-229-3166.

Photo of Judith Hawking and Christopher Daftsios by SuzAnne Barabas


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