Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Theater: "Ava: The Secret Conversations" at Geffen Playhouse

Ava: The Secret Conversations was presented at the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse.

Ava: The Secret Conversations
Written by Elizabeth McGovern
(based on the book Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations by Peter Shaw & Ava Gardner)
Directed by Moritz von Steulpnagel
Starring Elizabeth McGovern, Aaron Costa Ganis, Ryan W. Garcia

Ava Gardner, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina, was summoned to Hollywood when her portrait was spotted in the window of her photographer brother-in-law's Fifth Avenue studio. She had no ambitions and not much talent, but her stunning looks propelled her to Hollywood stardom and a certain degree of infamy due to the lusty passions she never felt the need to keep private. She was only nineteen when she married Mickey Rooney, then one of the biggest stars in the world. Her second husband was clarinetist/band leader Artie Shaw (she was the fifth of his eight wives, a group that also included actresses Lana Turner and Evelyn Keyes). Her third marriage was to Frank Sinatra, at a time when Sinatra's career was at its lowest point, a couple years out from his Oscar winning performance in From Here to Eternity. He was also still married to his first wife when he took up with Ava, making it a scandalous affair. In addition to her marriages, Gardner also had a lengthy, ongoing affair with Howard Hughes.

As I blogged last month, when I originally went to see this play the area suffered a power outage about halfway through the performance, so it had to be cancelled. I was rescheduled for last Friday. BTW, props to the Geffen box office staff for making the rescheduling easy-peasy. That had to have been hectic.

So I finally got to see the show in its entirely, and it went above and beyond what I'd expected from the portion I'd already seen. It takes place in 1988 with Gardner, aging and feeling the effects of a recent stroke and a lifetime of drinking and smoking, having decided to write her autobiography. She has relocated to London, her Hollywood career behind her, and needs money. Feeling her options are telling her story or selling her jewels, she opts to keep the jewels because they hold sentimental value. 

Gardner summons British journalist Peter Shaw to ghost-write her autobiography, but what follows is a cat-and-mouse game with Shaw trying to extract information from a capriciously uncooperative subject. At heart Ava is still the Golden Age of Hollywood grande dame in all her glory, alternately enthusiastically recalling old memories, but also often rebuffing Shaw's entreaties with a tipsy imperiousness.

As Shaw walks Ava through each marriage, actor Aaron Costa Ganis morphs from the ambitious British journalist to portray the excitable Mickey Rooney, then the condescending intellectual Artie Shaw, and finally Sinatra, frustrated by his failing career and the intrusive press that can't get enough of him and Ava. At each of these turns, McGovern alternates between the 1988 Ava to the period of each of her marriages. It's a fantastic technique and Ganis especially does a great job of playing four different characters. McGovern is surprisingly effective as the lusty Gardner. Despite being of such slight build, she's absolutely convincing as the woman once described as "The World's Most Beautiful Animal". Watching her I never once thought of Cora Crawley, but was witnessing a former sex symbol fighting through her waning days.

As the writing progresses, Shaw becomes increasingly excited about the book's prospects until Ava abruptly pulls the plug on the project due to a combination of worry that she's revealed too much and discovering that Shaw had once been successfully sued for libel by Frank Sinatra, with whom Ava remained friends until her death. It was a detail Shaw had neglected to share with her and caused her to distrust him.

It would be decades before Shaw received permission to publish the book. He was working on it at the time of his death in 2012. It was published the following year. Ava Gardner succumbed to bronchial pneumonia in 1990.

Ava: The Secret Conversations runs at the Geffen through May 14.

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