by Michael Bracken
Watching Amy Staats’s Eddie and Dave, at Atlantic Stage 2, I couldn’t help thinking of Jaclyn Backhaus’s Men on Boats, which played first at The Wild Project and then at Playwrights Horizons in 2015. Both plays take actual historical events (albeit of vastly different shapes and sizes), in which men are the driving forces. They then cast women in the roles of those men. So why was one so pointedly funny and the other so pointlessly flat?
Men on Boats was set in the 1800’s, when men were men, and its hearty heroes were on a “manly” mission, charting the course of the Colorado River as it led to and through the Grand Canyon. Having women play those bold explorers was the point. The pioneers’ brawny virility, normally taken for granted, was suddenly in question. And the answer was a lot of fun.
Eddie and Dave is a very different animal. Its trailblazers are musically inclined, the members of Van Halen, one of the most successful hard rock bands of all time. It’s the late twentieth century, and boys and girls don’t act that differently. Their clothing styles are not necessarily divergent. Androgyny is everywhere. Unisex fashions easily lend themselves to cross-dressing – there’s almost nothing to cross.
In other words, cross-gender casting does little more than state the obvious. But there’s more to the show than cross-gender casting.
Van Halen’s tumultuous history is quite a story, every bit as rocky a trip as a ride through the rapids of the Colorado River. Classically trained musicians Eddie (playwright Amy Staats) and Alex (Adina Verson) Van Halen allow David Lee Roth (Megan Hill) to be their lead singer so they can use his sound system. Van Halen is born. The band has a fourth member, bassist Michael Anthony, but he appears onstage only as a photograph.
Success seems to come easily but fraternity less so. Eddie and Dave are polar opposites. Eddie is a music geek, an award-winning virtuoso guitarist, serious to a fault, while Dave is the band’s personality, the preening rock star, full of strut and swagger. Alex, the peacemaker, is caught in the middle, or at least on his brother Eddie’s side of the middle. Eddie’s marriage to sitcom (One Day at a Time) star Valerie Bertinelli (Omer Abbas Salem) exacerbates the band’s divisions. Eventually Dave leaves the band only to come back years later, only to leave again and come back again and leave again.
The problem is that Eddie and Dave is too episodic: this happened, then that happened, then this happened again. There’s no noticeable vision or theme or attitude holding it together. Actors, director, playwright – no one seems to have a firm grip on how to approach the material.
Director Margot Bordelon’s attack is scattershot. Sometimes her actors seem sincere, sometimes cartoonish, mostly at sea somewhere in-between. There are moments of true emotion, but they’re sandwiched between varying degrees of histrionics. These are rock stars; we shouldn’t expect discipline from them. But we should expect it, and we don’t receive it, from the production.
The surprise jewel of Eddie and Dave is the birth of MTV, which happened about ten years after Van Halen came into being. The show is narrated by an MTV VJ (Vanessa Aspillaga), who pilfers a couple of lines from The Glass Menagerie for a knowing chuckle. The play doesn’t examine the music video phenomenon in depth, but it plants a seed and makes you think about MTV’s role in the annals of rock, which seemed revolutionary at the time.
Eddie and Dave is a treasure trove for rock ‘n roll history buffs. But as an entertainment vehicle, it gets stuck in neutral.
Ran thru Sunday, February 10th, at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). https://atlantictheater.org/ . 90 minutes with no intermission.