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Elizabeth McGovern | Photo: Justin Bettman

Alan Koolik
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April 24, 2023 11:49 AM

Ava: The Secret Conversations is a riveting and emotional play that delves deep into the private life of legendary Hollywood actress Ava Gardner. Written by Elizabeth McGovern, who also stars as Gardner, and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the play is a fictionalized account of the real-life conversations Gardner had with journalist Peter Evans, played by Aaron Costa Ganis, while working on her autobiography.

The play takes place in 1988, in Gardner’s London apartment, as she recounts stories from her past to Evans. After her 1986 stroke, she is left weakened, and must write an autobiography in order to pay her bills. From her rise to fame in Hollywood to her tumultuous relationships with some of the industry’s biggest stars, the play explores Gardner’s life with both humor and pathos. McGovern’s writing is excellent, seamlessly weaving together humorous anecdotes and poignant moments of reflection. The dialogue between Gardner and Evans is engaging and authentic, and the play’s themes of love, regret, and the passing of time are explored with sensitivity and depth.

The performances by McGovern and Costa Ganis are outstanding. McGovern brings Gardner to life with an impressive amount of nuance and authenticity, capturing both her fierce independence and vulnerability. Her chemistry with Costa Ganis is palpable, as they bounce off each other in a way that feels natural and unforced. Costa Ganis, for his part, delivers a strong performance as the ghostwriter who becomes deeply involved in Gardner’s life. Additionally, he excels playing Gardner’s three husbands: Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra. His character serves as an effective foil to Gardner’s larger-than-life persona, providing a grounded perspective that keeps the play anchored in reality.

One of the strengths of Ava: The Secret Conversations is the way it explores the complex relationship between Gardner and Evans. While they are ostensibly working together on Gardner’s memoir, their conversations delve into much deeper territory, revealing the emotional and psychological scars that Gardner carries with her. As the play progresses, it becomes clear that Evans is just as much in need of healing as Gardner, and the dynamic between the two characters shifts in unexpected and meaningful ways.

Aaron Costa Ganis & Elizabeth McGovern | Photo: Justin Bettman

The set design by David Meyer is also impressive, effectively capturing the mood and atmosphere of Gardner’s London apartment. The lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker and projection design by Alex Basco Koch add an additional layer of depth and nuance, evoking the changing emotional states of the characters. Combined with the excellent performances and writing, the overall effect is immersive and transportive, creating a world that feels both familiar and new.

However, while the play is largely successful, there are some pacing issues that may make it challenging for some. The play’s structure can feel a bit repetitive at times, with Gardner recounting one story after another without much forward momentum. While Costa Ganis’ shape-shifting performance as Gardner’s various husbands keeps the eras of her past distinct, there is nonetheless a slight feeling of stagnation, and some viewers may find themselves losing interest at certain points.

Additionally, while the chemistry between McGovern and Costa Ganis is strong, there are moments where the dialogue between their characters feels a bit too on-the-nose. Some of the exchanges feel like they are trying too hard to be profound, and this can detract from the overall emotional impact of the play.

Overall, Ava: The Secret Conversations is a powerful and affecting play that explores the complexities of one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. The outstanding performances by McGovern and Costa Ganis, combined with McGovern’s insightful writing and von Stuelpnagel’s skilled direction, make this play a worthwhile and engaging theatrical experience. Overall, it is a moving tribute to the life and legacy of Gardner.

Ava: The Secret Conversations is playing at the Geffen Playhouse through May 14. For tickets, click here

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Alan Koolik

Alan is currently a student at UCLA School of Law. Prior to this, he was an analyst for Jujamcyn Theaters and an off-Broadway producer. While an undergraduate at Columbia University, he was on staff for the student newspaper, the Spectator.

Los Angeles
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