Review: Ava – The Secret Conversations

I was eager to see actress Elizabeth McGovern in “AVA: The Secret Conversations” at the Geffen Playhouse. Not only does she star in this play, she wrote it based on the book “The Secret Conversations” by Peter Evans and Gardner herself. McGovern, recently known for portraying Cora Crawley on Downton Abbey, is fabulous as the Golden Age femme fatal in her final years.

Aaron Costa Ganis in Ava: The Secret Conversations. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the play takes place in Gardner’s flat in London in 1988, two years before her death. Mentioning her impairment from a stroke, the audience watches McGovern hold up her left arm that isn’t of much use, while explaining to Evans (Aaron Costa Ganis) why she needs to share her life story. “I either write the book or sell the jewels. I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels,” recites McGovern, receiving a laugh from the audience. She needs money to pay for living and medical expenses. Reluctant at first to take on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Evans begins meeting with her and this intimate experience changes his life. 

I’ve known of McGovern since 1986, while working at the theatrical talent agency, Writers and Artists. When McGovern visited her agent Joan Scott, everyone in the office was on their best behavior. McGovern started acting in the 1980, earning her first film role in Ordinary People after studying at Juilliard. One year later she earned an Academy Award nomination for her role in Ragtime.

The Master Bedroom at Sinatra’s Twin Palms. Photo Jill Weinlein

Two months before seeing “Ava: The Secret Conversations” I was in Palm Springs during Modernism Week. One of the Mid-Century Modern homes I toured was Frank Sinatra’s Twin Palms. He lived in this home with Gardner, and our tour guide shared with us how this celebrity couple loved hard, played hard and fought hard. One day, Frank came home and discovered Ava in the piano shaped pool with another man. He ran into the master bedroom, picked up all the clothes on the floor, took them out into the driveway and set them on fire.

Chipped sink at Sinatra’s Twin Palms home he shared with Ava Gardner. Photo Jill Weinlein

He then went back inside the home, picked up a champagne bottle and threw it into the sink, cracking it. The crack and chip are there today for all to see. If you ever get the chance to visit Palm Springs in February, during Modernism Week, be sure to take a tour of Twin Palms.

Elizabeth McGovern in Ava: The Secret Conversations at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

McGovern is Gardner throughout the show, and is nothing like Cora in Downtown Abbey. There are times though, when she gets a kitten look in her eyes toying with ghost writer Evans. That look is very similar to how Cora would give to her husband Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) to soften his stance about a matter and agree in her favor.

While Evans is pressured by his book editor Ed Victor (Ryan W. Garcia) to get all the juicy details about Ava’s marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw, and Frank Sinatra, and paramour Howard Hughes, we discover life was not a bed of roses for Gardner. McGovern and Ganis reenact scenes of Gardner’s life onstage while a projection video and photos enlighten the audience. Ganis as Evan takes on the roles of each of Ava’s lovers for a riveting theatrical glimpse into the private life of Hollywood’s biggest stars. There are only three actors in the production, and each one is brilliant, especially McGovern and Ganis. There is chemistry between the two that is so fun to watch.

Elizabeth McGovern in Ava: The Secret Conversations at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

Once voted the world’s most beautiful woman, we learn Gardner’s attractiveness seduced philandering Mickey Rooney the minute she arrived in Hollywood at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1941. As the top box-office attraction in the 1930s for his role as Andy Hardy, Rooney was one of the best-paid actors of that era. This celebrity couple married in 1942, and divorced in 1943. Rooney referred his first wife as “a lady of passion – one of them rage.” His philandering gave her every reason to be furious.

We learn a few years later she married jazz musician Artie Shaw, an intellect and a difficult man to live with, so that marriage only lasted one year.

When she met Sinatra, after he divorced Nancy, Sinatra was Gardner’s third and longest marriage, lasting six years. It was also her last marriage, and the two remained friends until the day she died.

Photo of Frank Sinatra at Twin Palms.

McGovern portraying Gardner drops a lot of f * bombs, smokes like a chimney, and drinks like a fish, yet the audience loves her. She radiates onstage pulling the audience into every scene. The stunning set by David Meyer enhances the show. Costume Designer Toni-Leslie James dresses McGovern in period piece lounge wear and dazzling dress at the end that takes the audiences breath away.

L-R: Aaron Costa Ganis, Elizabeth McGovern, and Ryan W. Garcia at the April 13, 2023 Opening Night of Ava: The Secret Conversations. Photo by Jordan Strauss.

Walking away from the play, we learn that Ava Gardner marched to her own beat. When the going got tough, and the men in her life tried to control her, this confident femme fatale walked away, instead of staying and becoming a victim.

Opening Night: April 13, 2023, and the play closes on May 7, 2023. There is no performance on Mondays. Tuesday – Friday the show starts at 7:00 p.m., Saturday: 2:00 and 7:00 p.m., and Sunday: 1:00 and 6:00 p.m. The show runs 90 minutes, no intermission.

All Geffen Playhouse productions are intended for an adult audience; children under 10 years of age will not be admitted.

Gil Cates Theater at Geffen Playhouse

10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024


Tickets currently priced at $30.00 – $129.00. Available by phone at (310)208.2028 or online at Fees may apply.

Rush tickets for each day’s performance are made available to the general public one hour before showtime at the box office. $35.00 General/$15.00 Student.

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