“She can’t talk, she can’t act, she’s terrific” was once said about Ava Gardner by Hollywood mogul and co-founder of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. Elizabeth McGovern, however, can talk; her American accent, that is stuck in limbo between a tobacco farm in North Carolina and the hedonistic glamour of 1940s New York, is laced with a superb drunken drawl. She can act; her elegant figure lazily draped over her opulent armchair, bare footed, with a cigarette in hand and a glass of amber liquor says that this enchanting women may have paled since her peak but a twinkle of her allure is still there. And, as a Golden Globe nominee with a career that saw her debut in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, whilst she was still a student at Julliard, she is certainly “terrific”! But whilst all these things are true, it seems there is one thing Elizabeth McGovern can’t do: Write. As McGovern’s first play, it is a disappointing debut, particularly in consideration of the richness of creative opportunities available in exploring the remarkable life of an extraordinary woman in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Ava: The Secret conversations is a journey through memories of Ava’s life as an actor and her infamous romances with her three husbands – Mickey Roonie, Artie Shaw and of course, Ol’ Blue Eyes – Frank Sinatra.
Playing writer Peter Evans, whose conversations with Ava Gardner led to the book on which this play is based, Anatol Yusef (HBO’s Broadwalk Empire) also plays her three husbands. His performance as Peter Evans is not particularly remarkable, but it is tolerable. With a tight stiff upper lip, he asks Ava in their first phone call “Do you still fuck like a racehorse?” To have stretched his talents to cover figures as charismatic and iconic as Sinatra led to a fairly shallow performance of some of the most key figures of this story. The chemistry between McGovern and Yusef is lacking in conviction and serves to omit the portrayal of the depth and complexity of Ava’s relationships. The awkwardness between them is much like a blind date with both parties sharing only mutual disappointment. The seduction of 18-year-old Ava by a caricature of Mickey Rooney, who came across more like a flamboyant Hollywood agent, rather than a spirited actor in his prime, is frankly ridiculous and far-fetched. A recurring joke in which the vote of Peter Evans’ boss requests that he convinces Ava to divulge details about Frank Sinatra’s penis becomes juvenile after its third mention.
The seamlessness in the transitions between the present and memory relies fully upon McGovern’s skills as a performer, as Yusef begins to morph between the character of Peter Evans to one of Ava’s husbands and it is not always immediately obvious when this has happened.
But there is a unique redeeming quality to this play. 59 Productions who are responsible for the set and video design, coupled with the wizardry of Elliot Griggs – a RADA trained lighting designer – have ensured that this production is a visual masterpiece. With the audience cloaked in complete darkness, our eyes are forced to be drawn to the exquisite stagecraft. Wooden slats are used to frame scenes to ingeniously provide a film quality to the stage. In one of the scenes, the frame is narrowed and slid across to follow Peter Evans as he walks across a street granting the scene movement which is rarely accomplished on stage. The scenic background is a projected video of residential skyline with swaying tress, and an overlay of set windows. We are also treated to real footage of Ava Gardner reminding us that this play revolves around the life of this very real, extraordinary woman belonging to the most triumphant era of Hollywood.
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Photo Credit: Marc Brenner