First of all, “Ava Gardner and the Pizza Boy,” written and directed by Larry Marsland, is only peripherally about Ava Gardner. Those who saw Marsland’s one-man show, “Night Falls on the Emerald City,” in which he channeled Judy Garland might be thinking this show is a similar examination of Ava Gardner’s life.
It isn’t. “Ava Gardner and the Pizza Boy,” at Cotuit Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theater through September 1, is sympathetic look at a phone sex worker with a proverbial heart of gold. More or less. She calls herself Ava Gardner because she loves Frank Sinatra’s music, which provides a soundtrack for the play, and she talks about Ava and Frank’s relationship throughout the play. (Sinatra was Gardner’s third husband, and she was his second wife. She considered him the love of her life, but their marriage lasted only six years.)
Second, much of the play is a graphic description of phone sex, and many in the audience when I attended on Friday night seemed uncomfortable with the language and the subject matter. At least half the audience (mostly older couples) left at (some saying they hoped they could get into “Cabaret” instead).
Third, it is more a staged reading than a play. Marsland, who plays two characters, sits on a stool to the side and reads from a script. Tammy Harper, the phone sex worker, acts out her role, but keeps a finger on the script. It only occasionally gets in the way of the action. The pizza boy, Adam Taylor Foster, does not use a script.
That said, the play offers a number of funny and/or endearing lines, the acting is well-done, and in the intimacy of the Black Box Theater, the action seems authentic, as we are provided a look into the not-so-glamorous world of a lonely sex phone worker. In the end, the story is uplifting. Plus, we learn a little about the real Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, surely an interest of Marsland’s as he may be more well-known on the Cape as a singer than as a playwright.
Harper is particularly effective in her many emotional roles. We see her as a real person, with both contempt and compassion for her customers, as well as needs of her own, which she has varied success at meeting.
Marsland rarely looks up from his script; he creates his two dramatically different and distinctly credible characters using only his voice—and a little squirming in his seat. Given what he is talking about, I don’t think we would want it any other way. His delivery is all we need to imagine the scene ourselves.
Larry Marsland (in a photo I took of him last year, in which he looks like neither Lennie nor Daddy).
As the play opens, Lennie (Marsland) phones the sex hotline and punches the code for Mistress Ingrid, advertised as the most provocative of the women available. Lennie is gay and seems to be in the process of transgendering.
Ingrid/Ava plays a dominant role with the meek and subservient Lennie. Having told him in a previous conversation what to wear, she asks him to describe his clothing and make-up, telling him what to do, some of which involves nipple pain and a challenging yoga position.
Things do not go well, however, and Ingrid/Ava seems genuinely apologetic. They agree to talk later about what would make these conversations more pleasing for Lennie.
Ava lives alone in a railroad flat in New York City and lacks any real meaningful relationships in her own life. She orders pizza primarily for the human companionship reluctantly provided by the pizza delivery boy. He does not give his name, so she calls him Frankie.
Foster does not give many hints as to Frankie’s nature. Perhaps he is indifferent; perhaps he is dangerous. Perhaps he is even sympathetic. Maybe he is actually one of her customers, as he suggests.
Daddy, also played by Marsland, is a more menacing phone sex regular who calls Ava/Ingrid his “little girl,” and forces her to retell a story about her 16th birthday that she clearly does not want to revisit.
“I pay the bills; I call the tunes,” he says later.
In the second act, we see a more human side of Lennie and Ava/Ingrid’s relationship as she tells him she is getting ready for a date, and wonders aloud whether to wear earrings.
Lennie advises her to “wear one and carry one in your hand.”
“You really know your shit, Len,” she says.
Again, there is a scene with Daddy on the phone that may cause discomfort, but, if you go, do stay through the second act for the ray of hope that shines through this play.
In the program, Marsland explains that the play was originally produced 14 years ago in New York City, where it ran for two months. It has, he says, “an interesting history on Cape Cod of flawed productions and productions that never quite left the ground.”
Given the immense popularity of “Fifty Shades of Gray,” and other books and movies like it, one would expect that this play might indeed find an audience. It is far less graphic than many movies, yet perhaps more powerful because it is live theater.
“Ava Gardner and the Pizza Boy” is at the Black Box Theater at Cotuit Center for the Arts Friday and Saturday nights at 8 PM through September 1. CCftA is at 4404 Route 28 in Cotuit.
Tickets are $12 and may be purchased at artsonthecape.org, by calling the box office at 508-428-0669, or at the theater one-half hour prior to show time. Latecomers cannot be seated, and only adults will be admitted.