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Swimming At The Ritz

By Gary Wien


Pamela Churchill Hayward Harriman, the ultimate party girl, has been living an idyllic life at the luxurious Ritz in Paris for the past several years accompanied by her young Italian valet, and has been spending her and her stepchildren's vast inheritance on paintings, clothing, jewels, furs, champagne (her day-to-day necessities). But her stepchildren's attorneys are about to shut her down. On the verge of losing everything, with the creditors literally at her door, Pamela reveals her journey from man-to-man and bed-to-bed, in a funny, poignant tour-de-force.

Such is the premise of Swimming At The Ritz, a play by Charles Leipart based on the true life of Pamela Harriman which will have its U.S. premiere in January. The play is being presented by New Jersey Repertory Company in a limited run from January 8 through February 1.

New Jersey Stage spoke with the playwright about what drew him to Pamela's story.

What attracted you to the story of Pamela Harriman?
I was fascinated. Pamela Digby, a chubby 17-year-old daughter of a minor British baron of diminishing fortune, arrives in London to work in a 20-pound-a-week government clerical job--about 3 dollars in U.S. currency in 1937 (the World Depression years). She becomes the daughter-in-law of Winston Churchill and at 19 finds herself pregnant with Winston's grandchild and he has her sharing the bomb shelter at 10 Downing Street. Subsequently over the years, she becomes the lover and wife of some of the richest and most powerful men of the 20th Century. Ultimately she becomes the First Lady of the Democratic Party, helps elect a U.S. President and when her life ends, she is the U.S. Ambassador to France. That's where we meet her in 1995 in a private suite at the Paris Ritz Hotel. Down to her last 10 million.

How did this happen to chubby Pamela?

Did she actually burn through the entire inheritance in real life?
In fact, she did. By 1995 Pamela had gone through the entire 115 million dollars left to her by Averell Harriman's death in 1986. As Pamela says in the play, "the cost of fresh flowers alone." She was spending her way through the 40 million dollars of a trust fund left in her care for the Harriman daughters and grandchildren when the Harriman clan brought a lawsuit against her to reclaim their inheritance. To keep the family wolves from her door, Pamela put her personal property up for auction. That's where the play starts.

Why do you think people generally love seeing the rich become penniless? It seems to present a classic storyline for a play.
I think we're more intrigued by the question of how some people get control of such vast amounts of money only to spend it all and end up with nothing. We can all fantasize about having vast wealth but we never think for a minute that we'd lose it. Yet, it happens. My interest as the playwright was in the breadth of Pamela's life experiences. She lived lavishly. She loved lavishly. All the while she was spending lavishly she was encouraged by the men in her life to do so.

This is the U.S. premiere of the play that originally ran in the U.K. in 2010-2011.  Has the play changed much since then?
No, it hasn't. We were able to present the play for the first time in the U.K. supported by the Arts Council England, which was such a great opportunity. It was very well-received. Some details deemed "too American" were removed from the play and the play was slightly shortened. With this American premiere, Swimming In The Ritz is as I originally wrote it, with just a few modifications.

Considering her relationship with Winston Churchill's family, what was the U.K. reaction to the play?
The U.K. audiences and critics loved the play and were fascinated by Pamela's exploits. Interestingly enough, Pamela left the U.K. for New York in 1959 and spent the next four decades as a U.S. resident. Most of the British audiences were unaware of her U.S. history. What the British audience didn't know was that Pamela achieved so much more than simply being Winston Churchill's daughter-in-law.

Have you been working with NJ Rep on this production? Do you plan to make it to the opening?
Yes, I'm there to be as helpful as I can to SuzAnne Barabas the director, and I will indeed be at the opening. Pamela is on-stage throughout the play as is Pietro, the Ritz valet. The play requires quite a bit from both actors. While I've not worked with Judith Hawking or Christopher Daftsios previously or SuzAnne, I'm excited to be working with each of the three of them.

What do you hope audience members take from the play?
An entertaining and insightful theatre experience. Pamela was charming, intelligent, self-critical and remarkably intuitive about people. She had the uncanny ability to make whomever she spoke with feel important and that they were the only person in the room, especially the men. My hope is that at the end of the play, everyone in the audience will feel as if they have been in the presence of one of the greatest courtesans and diplomats of the 20th Century. I certainly have enjoyed her company.




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Holmdel Theatre Company Presents 'ART'
(HOLMDEL, NJ) – The Holmdel Theatre Company (HTC) will present 6 performances of Yasmina Reza’s ‘ART’  from December 7th through December 16th. Translated from French by Christopher Hampton, the play tells the story of what happens when Serge buys an expensive painting, and the reactions of his two closest friends, Marc and Yvan, to his purchase. As what begins as a discussion about the quality of the painting that Serge has purchased quickly devolves into petty jabs and personal attacks, the three men border on destroying their friendships.
Pebble Players Presents "Heathers, the Musical: High School Edition"
(SUMMIT, NJ) -- Celebrating their 10th season, Pebble Players has been entertaining Summit residents and audiences from surrounding towns with sophisticated Off-Broadway quality performances. The 2018 Season opens with "Heathers The Musical: High School Edition," directed by Jayne Myers and choreographed by Jaimie Woodruff.  Performances are Friday, November 16 and Saturday, November 17 at 7:30pm and Sunday, November 18 at 2:00pm. 
NJPAC Presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies
(NEWARK, NJ) -- New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) presents Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies from Thursday, March 21, 2019 - Saturday, March 23, 2019. The high-style music of “The Duke” is the heart and soul of this 1981 Tony-winning Broadway hit, directed with dazzle by André De Shields (The Wiz). Mercedes Ellington, granddaughter of Duke Ellington, re-creates the original show’s elegant dancing and tapping as choreographer.
Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater present Teahouse by Lao She
(PRINCETON, NJ) --Princeton Chinese Theatre in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Theater at Princeton University will present Teahouse by Lao She on November 16, 17 and 18 at 8:00pm and November 17 at 2:00pm in the Donald G. Drapkin Studio at the Lewis Arts complex on the Princeton campus. Teahouse is considered a masterpiece of contemporary Chinese theater, spanning 50 years in modern Chinese history from the collapse of the Qing dynasty and the Republican Revolution to the birth of the People’s Republic, bringing together over sixty characters who represent all walks of life. The production is directed by senior Changshuo Liu.
Axelrod's Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts Program Presents "Peter Pan"
(OCEAN TOWNSHIP, NJ) --  A family musical that’s perfect for the holiday season, “Peter Pan” is flying onto the Axelrod stage December 8-16. Axelrod’s award-winning Rising Stars Youth Performing Arts program presents one of Broadway’s timeless classics in a fully staged production directed by Lisa Goldfarb with musical direction by Randy Hurst and choreography by Wendy Roman.  


Broadway’s Next H!T Musical LIVE! at Toms River’s Grunin Center
It’s Friday, October 26, 2018, and the Broadway’s Next H!T Musical cast is just about ready to take the stage at the Jay and Linda Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ.
The Last Apple Pie: "Apples In Winter" Opens At Centenary Stage
Jennifer Fawcett’s new play centers around a mother in a kitchen, doing something countless people across America will take part in over the upcoming holiday season: making an apple pie.
See Andrea McArdle LIVE! in Annie at Deal Park’s Axelrod PAC!
Leapin’ Lizards! Annie’s finally made it to the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal Park, NJ, and it stars Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, as Miss Hannigan!
"It's a Blast!" Go See Rock of Ages 10th Anniversary Tour NOW! at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino!
The five-time Tony award-nominated Broadway musical, Rock of Ages, returns to the stage with a 10th Anniversary Tour at Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino! Performed in the venue’s ultra-modern Sound Waves theater, Rock of Ages runs from now until November 4, 2018.
There's One In Every Family: "Charley's Aunt" at The Shakespeare Theatre
On stage now through November 18 at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, “Charley’s Aunt” is described as “part Oscar Wilde, part ‘Fawlty Towers,’ with a dash of South American spice!” This side-splitting British farce from 1892 has drag, mistaken identity, romance and plenty of physical comedy. Join Jesse and Dave at rehearsals in Florham Park to hear from the cast and director what makes this such a hilarious and enduring show.






Event calendar
Thursday, Nov 15, 2018


MUSIC

New Politics @ House of Independents, Asbury Park - 8:00pm

THE REPUTATIONS @ The Saint, Asbury Park - 7:30pm

TOTO @ Mayo Performing Arts Center (MPAC), Morristown - 8:00pm


THEATRE

An Actor's Carol @ Cape May Stage, Cape May - 7:30pm

ANNIE, The Musical @ Axelrod Performing Arts Center, Deal Park - 8:00pm

Apples In Winter @ Centenary Stage Company - Kutz Theater of the Lackland Center, Hackettstown - 7:30pm

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat @ The Levoy Theatre, Millville - 7:30pm

Spring Awakening: The Rock Musical @ Black Box PAC, Teaneck - 8:00pm







DANCE

PARSONS DANCE @ State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick - 8:00pm


FILM

Crybaby Matinee: March of the Penguins @ Hopewell Theater, Hopewell - 11:00am

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