“Ava: The Secret Conversations,” Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles, Apr. 13 – May 7, 2023
Apr. 23, 2023 | By Bruce R. Feldman
In Brief: You won’t learn anything about the personal toll of Hollywood celebrity that you don’t already know, but crisp performances, finely calibrated direction that is both dynamic and nuanced, and superior stagecraft make this stylish tale of faded stardom more entertaining and worthwhile than you might expect.
Ava Gardner wasn’t the biggest movie star at MGM in the 1940s and ‘50s. She was merely the most gorgeous and desirable, so much so that she was once billed on a movie poster as “the world’s most beautiful animal.”
Her high cheekbones, hypnotic eyes, and dimpled chin were just the tip of her extraordinary allure. In her films she flaunted unembarrassed sensuality coupled with an air of detachment, a lethal combination that fans worshiped, and that, off screen, rich and powerful men found irresistible.
Gardner never believed she was a great actress, a recurring motif in Ava: The Secret Conversations. She struggled for five years as a contract player at MGM, mostly uncredited for the small roles she undertook, until her break in 1946 in The Killers, opposite Burt Lancaster.
Though she went on to get top billing in popular films like The Barefoot Contessa and Mogambo, she harbored lifelong self-doubt about her talent and disappointment about her three failed marriages, and perhaps also about the countless high-octane affairs that left her living alone in London in the 1980s.
After recovering from a stroke when she was 65, she began a series of conversations with the British journalist Peter Evans, entrusting him with the job of fashioning her words into a memoir. Gardner died two years later. Some of the juicy transcripts were finally published in 2013 but are largely forgotten.
Some thirty years on, Elizabeth McGovern, doing admirable double duty as author and performer, has shaped them – with the assistance of dramaturg Olivia O’Connor – into a two-character play. The result is a coherent, absorbing, enjoyably theatrical portrait of Gardner, the sultry movie star and the impulsive personality she was off screen.
There are no bombshells in McGovern’s skillfully woven text. She covers the familiar trajectory of Gardner’s rise from small town obscurity and brief early marriages to Mickey Rooney (a sex addict), bandleader Artie Shaw (a tyrant), and finally to Frank Sinatra – her one real love.
McGovern is impressive in the title role, bringing humanity to the tough-talking, world-weary, larger-than-life diva that Gardner played in movies and in life.
Here, too, are the torrid affairs she had with Howard Hughes and other powerful Hollywood figures and the life-long friendship she shared with Ernest Hemingway, both hard drinkers who could carouse all night.
While Gardner is the ostensible focus of the narrative, McGovern gives equal weight to Peter Evans, adding context and substance to what otherwise might have been just another celebrity potboiler. Instead, the play presents two lost souls hoping for if not salvation, perhaps at least clarity and dignity.
At first reluctant to take on a ghost-writing job, the married journalist soon falls under the aging siren’s spell. For Gardner it’s just another ill-advised liaison, but this time she’s had enough hard knocks to know to avoid it.
McGovern is impressive in the title role, bringing humanity to the tough-talking, world-weary, larger-than-life diva that Gardner played in movies and in life. It’s a pleasing contrast to her most recent work as the self-effacing Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
As an actress, McGovern shows her range and intelligence, and while she isn’t the stunning beauty that Gardner was, she is very effective and believable in the role.
Aaron Costa Ganis also is outstanding as her smitten antagonist. It’s a challenge playing second fiddle to the testy, profane Gardner. Ganis holds his own, making Evans quite a bit more than a cypher.
The play takes place in Gardner’s posh London apartment, smartly summoned up by scenic designer David Meyer. Lively flashback projections by Alex Basco Koch serve both to segue between scenes and punctuate them.
All in, it’s a smooth, handsome production that perfectly complements the smart writing, authoritative acting, and Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s deft direction.