Theater review by Helen Shaw
In Amy Staats’s unabashedly goofy rock bioplay Eddie and Dave, Vanessa Aspillaga plays an MTV VJ—words that should thrill any Gen Xer’s heart. As the show’s narrator, she begins with some tart observations about nostalgia, and of course she’s right about that. But also…Hey, remember MTV? [Review writing is momentarily paused for the viewing of an A-ha video.]
Affection for music and the ridiculous past are the columns on which Staats has built her comedy, which flashes back from a debacle at the 1996 MTV Music Video Awards to tell the story of how virtuoso guitarist Eddie Van Halen (played by Staats herself) met glam-rock peacock David Lee Roth (Megan Hill); how they taught the world to jump and to tease its hair real big; how actress Valerie Bertinelli (Omer Abbas Salem) nearly came between them; and how drummer Alex Van Halen (Adina Verson) stirred the pot.
How in the name of high holy hairspray did they get away with this? None of the names have been changed, and Staats’s portrait of her subjects, if always loving, sure isn’t hagiography. The music also hews perilously close to Van Halen’s classic bangers: Sound designer Palmer Hefferan and composer Michael Thurber have created short music cues that stay just shy of copyright infraction while still giving the audience some lost-in-the-80s shivers. But those calculations—the attempts to take something that feels bootleg and turn it into something that can get through the Atlantic Theater Company’s legal department—leave the play a little muted.
Thankfully, the gender-swapped performances go to 11. The gonzo Hill shows up in a dream sequence wearing assless scrubs, and that’s one of her more sober moments; Salem is slinky and hilarious as Bertinelli. Director Margot Bordelon and her design team, particularly costumier Montana Levi Blanco, give Eddie and Dave absolutely everything they can, considering that they’re not being allowed to make a jukebox musical. But the show’s structure and practical compromises keep fighting them. The narrator doesn't feel necessary, and it’s difficult to make things feel sufficiently awesome when you can tell us about Eddie playing on Michael Jackson's "Beat It" but you aren't allowed to let us actually hear it. If you’re an audience member who’s willing to imagine, say, “Panama” at top volume in your mind as you watch it, then Eddie and Dave is the perfect accompaniment. As it plays now, though, this big-hearted show sounds too much like an electric guitar—right before you plug it into the amp.
Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). By Amy Staats. Directed by Margot Bordelon. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 40mins. No intermission.