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The Geffen Playhouse is reminding the world of one of Hollywood’ great luminaries with the play “Ava: The Secret Conversations.”
Ava Gardner was one of those actresses that was almost more famous for being famous than any individual performance she ever gave. Her romances were legendary, with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra amongst her ex-husbands. She died at just 67 years old in 1990, following several years of illness and poor health. In her life, she earned an Academy Award nomination, for the film “Mogambo,” and also appeared “The Killers,” “Show Boat,” “The Night of the Iguana,” “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman,” “The Barefoot Contessa” and “Earthquake.”
In the pantheons of the Hollywood Golden Age, however, Gardner’s legend is largely outranked by the storied careers of her contemporaries, including Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn and Grace Kelly. During the 1940s and 1950s, though, she was one of MGM’s brightest stars, and her beauty was an icon of pin-up legend.
In “Ava,” Gardner is portrayed by Elizabeth McGovern, an actress with her own long Hollywood history with credits like “Ordinary People,” “Ragtime” and “Downton Abbey.” As Gardner, she lives in a London flat, and has to write an autobiography to pay the bills. She employs ghost writer Peter Evans, and then begins to unspool her life story.
The 90-minute play uses Gardner’s three husbands as framing devices, and McGovern seamlessly transitions to enacting Gardner at various points in her life, while Aaron Costa Ganis, as Evans, takes on the roles of Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra with aplomb. Another frequently referenced character is Howard Hughes, with whom Gardner had a long-term affair but never married. An offstage book editor is played by Ryan W. Garcia, also the understudy for the Evans character, who moves the story along with a commanding voice.
McGovern also wrote the play, which is based on the real-life story and book “Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations.”
Spoiler: the autobiography was never published. Gardner backed out of publishing after learning some information about Evans’ history, which I’ll withhold here but is discussed within the play and is also easily found searching on Google. Following Evans’ death in 2012, the “Ava” book was published using his notes and preliminary drafts of the never-published autobiography.
The staging by Moritz Von Stuelphagel is particularly engaging, with sparing but effective use of projected film clips and photographs to illustrate various points of Gardner’s life. The set is sparse but lush, with Gardner’s London apartment hosting the action. Subtle lighting cues bring that space from the 1940s to the 1980s and back again.
It is the performances of McGovern and Ganis that carry the piece. As Gardner, McGovern embodies a larger-than-life, confident yet insecure, sexy yet venerable, dying yet so alive, woman. With a constantly dangling cigarette, she seduces the audience in a ring of smoke, and when she shifts to various ages of Ava with no changes in makeup or costuming, you believe it.
Ganis, meanwhile, is tasked with being many, many different people, and if there’s any doubt to his ability to play them all, that doubt is wiped away when he’s called upon to sing as “Old Blue Eyes” about three-fourths of the way through the piece. Suddenly, he’s Sinatra.
It is no small task for a play to take on a gargantuan life of a beautiful starlet picked up out of North Carolina obscurity and skyrocketed to fame. With her copious love affairs and struggles in-and-out of Hollywood, it would be easy to craft a story that only leaves a single impression as opposed to an overall portrait. But “Ava: The Secret Conversations” is a portrait, one that seems destined to go far beyond the Geffen all the way to Broadway.
“Ava: The Secret Conversations” runs through May 7. For tickets and information, visit geffenplayhouse.org/shows/ava-the-secret-conversations. The Geffen Playhouse is located at 10886 Le Conte Ave.
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