You may not, right now, be able to give more than a vague answer to the question: Who was Pamela Harriman? “Wasn’t she an ambassador, or something like that?” you might say.
But if you see “Swimming at the Ritz,” which is at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through Feb. 1, she will become very vivid to you.
As written by Charles Leipart and portrayed by Judith Hawking (in the play’s American premiere), Harriman is a fascinating character: a calculated charmer, ambitious and shallow, but also brutally honest and painfully aware of her shortcomings. The premise of the play is that she’s living alone in 1995 in a suite at the Ritz in Paris, with her own Matisse and Picasso paintings on the walls, talking about her life “to the furniture,” as she says, or to the hotel’s deferential valet Pietro (played by Christopher Daftsios).
And what a life it was. Marriage to one of Winston Churchill’s sons during World War II. A quick divorce, then a series of affairs with super-rich Europeans and celebrities such as Edward R. Murrow, followed by marriages to American theater producer Leland Hayward (“Gypsy,” “The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific”) and ex-New York governor W. Averell Harriman. And then, finally, prominence as a political fundraiser and a plum political appointment as the United States Ambassador to France during the Clinton administration.
She doesn’t shrink away from the fact that she was attracted to most of the men in her life because of their wealth and power. “It’s all about survival, isn’t it? Doing what you have to do,” she says. And she talks about her seduction strategy: basically, figuring out what these men need to keep them happy, and giving it to them, enthusiastically and unconditionally.
With her down-to-earth sense of humor, her casual namedropping and her way of telling her stories like she’s sharing confidential information, she charms us, the audience, as well. (Breaking the fourth wall, she acknowledges that she knows we are there, though Pietro thinks she is just imagining us.)
There’s a bit of anxiety in her life, as she’s being sued by her late third husband’s children, who are trying to get back some of the money he has left her. The drama of the play comes from the stories she tells, though — and the way they start to reveal more and more truths (some not all that pleasant) about her — and not from this minor annoyance.
Jessica Parks’ set effectively re-creates the elegance of a hotel room in which such a woman would live, and director SuzAnne Barabas offers some clever touches, like the flashes of light in the window when Harriman is talking about London being bombed during World War II. Daftsios adds some energetic comic relief while also making it clear that his character feels a strong emotional bond to the eccentric lady who’s ordering him around.
But really, everything hinges on Hawking’s ability to bring Harriman to life — to make the audience care about her, despite her privileges and the materialistic way she has gone about her life — and she’s more than up to the challenge. New Jersey Repertory has an impressive opener to its 18th season.
“Swimming at the Ritz” is at New Jersey Repertory Company Jan. 15-18, 22-25 and 29-31, and Feb. 1. Visit NJRep.org.