Imagine being a fly on the wall as an aging, boozy and forever glamorous Ava Gardner regales her ghost writer with stories, thoughts and opinions on her tumultuous and spectacular life. It’s the fascinating premise of “Ava: The Secret Conversations” starring a beguiling and luminescent Elizabeth McGovern as the woman once proclaimed the most beautiful woman in the world. McGovern also wrote the piece, based on actual recordings of Gardner and her memoir ghost writer, Peter Evans.
A classic beauty in her own right, McGovern, best known for her role as matriarch of “Downton Abbey”, is perfect in the role. In the 80’s McGovern was herself a ubiquitous “it” girl, starring in a slew of iconic films like “Ordinary People”, “Once Upon a Time in America”, “Ragtime”, and my personal favorite “Racing With The Moon” with Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage.
As the ultimate femme fatale of all time, Gardner was once the most sought after moviestar in the world with a life off-camera that was often far more scandalous than any film. As the play begins, she is in her 60’s and, in need of cash flow, contacts Evans to come speak to her about writing her memoir. At first he thinks it’s a joke but soon realizes it’s a bonafide offer from the icon herself. A former journalist desirous of writing novels, Evans is not keen on the idea but his agent pressures him to do it and to, most importantly, get the nitty gritty gossip about her relationships with Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra and Howard Hughes.
Evans begins meeting Gardner in a chic flat in London where the still saucy and irreverent actress soon casts her spell on him. As she recounts crucial moments with each of the men in her life, Aaron Costa Ganis, as Evans, transforms into Rooney, Shaw, Sinatra and Hughes. Ganis does this seamlessly, going toe to toe with McGovern who slips beautifully into a younger, piquant Gardner. They have terrific chemistry in each iteration of entanglement including as writer and subject.
McGovern seems born to play a role like this, commanding the room as one would imagine Gardner would, gliding across the stage and draping herself on a chaise in silky pajamas – holding court and giving you exactly and only what she wants to give.
What emerges is a woman of indomitable spirit who wrangled life on her own terms, refusing any and all boxes she was expected to fit into. The play shows Gardner to have been naughty, coquettish, and fiercely defiant to the end – a woman determined to write her own script any damn way she pleased.
AVA: THE SECRET CONVERSATIONS runs April 13 through May 7 (Update: extended through May 14) at Geffen Playhouse on the Gil Cates Theater stage located at 10886 Le Conte Avenue in Los Angeles across from UCLA.
Tickets currently priced at $30.00 – $129.00. Available by phone at 310.208.2028 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.org.