Saturday, January 26, 2019

156 (2018-2019): Review: EDDIE AND DAVE (seen January 25, 2019)

“Wailin' with Van Halen ”

According to the seedling of a rumor now circulating on the Internet, Van Halen, the four-man, hard rock band popular mainly from the 70s into the 90s, is considering another reunion, which would be like manna from heaven for the dwindling legions of its aging fans.

As I left the Atlantic Theatre’s Stage II, where Eddie and Dave, Amy Staats’s flawed play about the band is housed, a woman in the elevator said to me, “The most hilarious part of the show was how old everyone in the audience was.” I then texted my 26-year-old granddaughter about her own familiarity with Van Halen. Her answer: “Not at all.”
Megan Hill, Vanessa Aspillaga. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
If a reunion does come to pass, hopefully things won’t be as whack as in 1996, when the group, which had separated from lead singer David Lee Roth in 1985 (replacing him with Sammy Hagar), reunited temporarily to produce their Best of—Volume I album and present an award at that year’s MTV Video Music Awards. But Roth’s odd onstage behavior while presenting an award to Beck, and post-show friction with the band’s great guitarist, Eddie Van Halen, put the kibosh on those plans.
Adina Verson, Megan Hill, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Eddie and Dave is a laughter-deprived, semi-musical biodrama. Staats notes that “The only thing real about this play is the author’s love for a certain band,” but it actually sticks pretty close to the facts surrounding Van Halen’s origins, rise to fame, bumpy career, disagreements, and reconciliations. Its strings fray, though, when it’s performed under Margot Bordelon’s direction in the aggressively pumped-up manner of a cartoon-like spoof, now and then palely reminiscent of the classic movie satire about longhaired bands, This Is Spinal Tap.
Amy Staats, Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foste
The show gets off to a promising start, taking us back to the 1996 debacle before recreating the band’s story, in multiple short scenes, beginning when the Dutch-born Van Halen boys arrive in America, aged seven and nine. Narrating their tale is a brassy, female MTJ-VJ (video jockey), played by Vanessa Aspillaga, who also serves as minor characters, like Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson, the former having inveigled Eddie to participate on the gloved one’s “Beat It.” This is the VJ’s “memory play,” which she introduces in The Glass Menagerie-style by saying, “Yeah, I got tricks up my pocket, I have zippers up my sleeves.”
Vanessa Aspillaga. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Of the play’s principal liberties, we can begin with its use of only three members of the quartet, Dave (Megan Hill) and the classically trained brothers, Eddie (playwright Staats), guitarist and keyboardist, and Al (Adina Verson), drummer. For some obscure reason, bassist Michael Anthony is present only as a sometimes referred-to and spotlit photo hanging to one side, like Tom’s absent father in Menagerie.
Meghan Hill, Adina Verson, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Even more questionable, regardless of its gender satire potential, is Staats’s choice of having all but one character played by women, which soon becomes depressingly stale. The sardonic fun of having actresses play swaggering, mulleted, macho rock stars, is funny for about five minutes, especially when the narcissistic, acrobatic Diamond Dave swings his teased, blond mane around. 
Omer Abbas Salem, Amy Staats, Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
And how long do you think it takes for the joke of having Eddie’s wife, long-running sitcom star (“One Day at a Time”) Valerie Bertinelli, played by tall, skinny, five o’clock-shadowed Omer Abbas Salem, to fall as flat as the actor’s chest? The broad performances are engaging only up to a point, and it's one that comes very soon.
Omer Abbas Salem, Amy Staats. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
If your main interest in seeing a play about Van Halen is their music, you’ll be even grumpier, as the disappointingly few songs, heard in snatches of a few bars here and there, are mimed in synch with the group’s recordings, very few of which—like “Jump”—are named. If you’re not a fan, you may not even be able to separate the occasional sounds of Michael Thurber’s original music from Van Halen’s. Copyright issues may be at play, of course, but, if so, why do a show about famous musicians without being able to cover their hits? 
Megan Hill. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Van Halen’s story will have its chief interest for fans, who already know it. For those who don’t, it varies little from the stories of other famous bands (see Bohemian Rhapsody for a good example), with their quarrelling, fistfights, jealousies, artistic disputes, business issues, substance abuse and rehab, health problems, breakups, and so on. 
Adina Verson. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Whatever the real Dave, Eddie, and Al are like, Staats gives us only caricatures, from Dave’s peacock strutting to Eddie’s shyness and inarticulateness to Al’s diffidence. Without something more three-dimensional (or laugh-worthy), nonfans, like me, will find they couldn’t care less. You need more than playing gender games to stir up interest.
Reid Thompson creates a flexible setting, using walls covered with rock music memorabilia, and a back wall on which Shawn Boyle can create numerous nifty video projections. Jiyoun Chang gives the show the ambience it needs, while Montana Levi Blanco has fun recreating the band’s look, supplemented by the spot-on hair and wig stylings of Cookie Jordan.

Lively and colorful as much of Eddie and Dave is, it never fully justifies its existence, nor why its gender bending is so necessary. At 95 dully unfunny, intermissionless minutes, it’s a drag, in more ways than one.


Atlantic Theater Stage 2
W. 16th St., NYC
Through February 10