Ava: The Secret Conversations

Reviewer's rating

I didn’t know very much about Ava Gardner going into this play. Sadly, I don’t feel I know much more coming out of it.

This is a play about a famous and at times powerful woman (she was responsible for pushing for the casting of then-husband Frank Sinatra in his Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity) framed around the relationships with the men in her life. I mean this literally, as the play both opens and closes on the putative co-author of her autobiography Peter Evans talking about his relationship with her and being told to find out about her relationships with the other famous men in her life.

Were I being generous, I could assume that this is a deliberate choice to show the way men adapt even the stories of famous women to be all about them. But it would be a leap from text and lack of real subtext to get there.

So we careen through Ava’s drinking and eccentricities to hear all about Micky Rooney (shagger), Artie Shaw (vaguely cruel) and Frank Sinatra – whose break up with Ava is ill-defined. Though that may well have been the case in real life too as they remained friends.

Least explored – in fact almost brushed off – was Gardner’s complicated relationship with Howard Hughes, which lasted for 20 years despite his violence towards her (and potential rape). This relationship alone would have made for a more interesting play – exploring the context of why women stay in relationships with abusive men – even when they have their own power and status.

The play itself is very static – as a play about conversations is wont to be. Except for the set, which moves between long transitions, sometimes with projections of Ava Gardner films or publicity shots projected onto parts of the unstill whole.

McGovern captures Gardner pretty well and manages the transitions between her quicksilver moods subtly and well. She is at her best when telling the stories of Gardner’s youth, but it feels more muted and timid when talking about the famous characters she met. This may well have been the case with the source material, but in which case some layers of imagination needed to be added.