It might’ve been the smell of cigarette smoke or my crush on the actress, but when Elizabeth McGovern delivered her very first “honey” in the titular character’s American drawl, the theater began to spin.
Ava: The Secret Conversations is McGovern’s adaptation of Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Evans and Ava Gardner. It is a look through the life and loves of “The World’s Sexiest Animal” through the story of Garner writing her story.
The story follows the process of Peter Evans, played by Aaron Costa Ganis in the Geffen Playhouse Production, attempting to get the life story of a sixty-something Ava Gardner down on paper. By 1988, the time the play is set, the Hollywood icon’s looks have faded and excessive drinking and smoking have damaged her health; additionally, she has recently suffered a stroke, leaving her partially paralyzed. Ava is mercurial, erratic, and resistant to Peter’s interviews, but opens up as Peter steps into the roles of her various husbands, Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra.
Peter doesn’t just step into her husband’s roles, he becomes them. The first time we see this he starts doing a Mickey Rooney impression, which slowly morphs into a scene in which the eighteen-year-old Ava is meeting her first husband for the first time (more on McGovern’s performance in this scene later). Mickey Rooney is only three years older than Ava, and having been in movies since childhood, he’s young, irresponsible, and impulsive. Their marriage is sexy, spontaneous, and over in 16 months.
Next, Peter becomes Artie Shaw. While reading excerpts from the latter’s books, Peter’s British accent slowly morphs into Artie’s American one. Artie Shaw is a Pygmalion-esque husband who gives Ava reading lessons, hires a Russian Grand Master to teach her chess, and exerts control over her career, all of which are things that lead Ava to take up drinking.
And finally, there’s Frank Sinatra. The relationship between Ava and Frank was loud, explosive, and career-damaging, though even after their divorce in 1957 they remained friends. Peter’s transformation into Sinatra is a sudden one, without the same lead-in given to the other two, though it does reflect the abrupt nature of their infamous drive to Indio, California, where they were arrested after shooting out the town’s streetlights.
Much of the dialogue is lifted verbatim from Evans and Gardner’s book, and McGovern’s writing blends so well that it’s difficult to tell what’s her and what’s Gardner herself. There’s a wonderful mix of hilarious and vulgar in the show, with Ava’s liberal use of “fuck” and her blunt demeanor lending a punchiness to the performance.
The costumes for the show, designed for this production by Toni-Leslie James, left me gushing as I stumbled giddily from the theater. Aside from being beautiful, they perfectly encapsulate the glamour of old Hollywood and its now-faded star. I’m still reeling from the flowy red silken pajama set and Ava’s black-and-pink red carpet dress. The set also works to sell us Ava’s character, replicating the beautiful London flats she was known for after her expatriation. The beautiful apartment is occasionally covered in projected images to indicate that we’ve gone back in time, and after Ava’s silhouette disappears for the last time, screens close in front of it all and we and Peter Evans are treated to images of the real life Ava Gardner.
And now for the reason you’ve all clicked on this article (I can only presume)–the lead and playwright, the one and only, the inimitable, the beautiful Elizabeth McGovern. McGovern is probably best known for her role as Lady Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey, but as well as being fabulous on the screen, her onstage presence is breathtaking. As impressive as it is that Ganis plays four different characters throughout the show, it is almost more impressive how McGovern plays the same character at different points in her life. The most evident example is the Mickey Rooney flashback (I said we’d get back to it); over the course of a few lines of dialogue, the 61-year-old McGovern transforms herself from a beaten-down Ava Gardner in her mid-sixties, to a nervous 18-year-old Ava. She brilliantly captures the energy of being newly arrived in Hollywood, with a South Carolina accent so thick that you can’t quite understand the words spilling anxiously out of her mouth–but impressively, you can tell that she is saying words. McGovern’s every action throughout the play is spellbinding, and the tiniest details, such as the nervous way she clutches her drink in her moment with Artie Shaw, display the depth of understanding she has for this character as well as the craft of acting in general.
I sincerely hope that my enthusiasm for this play has made itself evident. I highly suggest you go see it at the Geffen Playhouse before May 7th. Students can use a TeenTix Pass to get a seat for only $5!
All photos courtesy of Geffen Playhouse.