Big Hair and Bigger Egos in Eddie and Dave
The legend of the hard-rock band Van Halen takes the stage in Amy Staats's new comedy.
"All things great and magical are inherently ridiculous," says a wise MTV VJ in Amy Staats's Eddie and Dave, adding, "and you yourself are ridiculous, or will be soon if you are lucky and very, very brave." This statement reveals much about the frisky admiration with which Staats wrote this hilarious fable of rock 'n' roll, now playing at Atlantic Theater Company. Staats invites her audience into a snow globe filled with glitter and cocaine to recount the heroic journey of the band Van Halen, resulting in 100 minutes that are indeed as magical as they are ridiculous.
Naturally, this Billboard bildungsroman features recurrent themes in the American dream: Dutch immigrants Eddie (playwright Staats) and Alex Van Halen (a no-nonsense Adina Verson) arrive in America with little more than a proficiency in classical music. Drummer Alex is protective of his younger brother, a somewhat awkward guitar prodigy who dreams of composing. When they decide to invite a Pasadena rich kid named David Lee Roth (Megan Hill) to be their lead singer, they set the band on the highway to both glory and destruction.
Conjuring the crackly wonder of a campfire fabulist, Vanessa Aspillaga portrays our narrator, a VJ from the golden age of MTV (back when the cable channel actually showed music videos). In addition to playing multiple roles (roadies, fans, Quincy Jones), she tells how the band went from playing backyard parties in LA to selling out Madison Square Garden. She straddles the line between Bertolt Brecht and Tennessee Williams, imparting wisdom while navigating the murky waters of memory.
And thanks to the committed performances of this five-person cast, we're willing to go along with this highly fantastical version of events: We watch as Eddie burns the night oil at his Casio. An ethereal glaze over her eyes, Staats plays him like Mozart, deep in concentration, composing his Requiem. What is his magnum opus? The No. 1 song "Jump," of course. Portraying the long-suffering Stanzi to his Wolfie is Omer Abbas Salem, who endows One Day at a Time star Valerie Bertinelli with a mischievous smile and hungry eyes.
With the painted-on grin of a carnival barker, Hill eerily channels the aggressive, grating charisma of David Lee Roth. It's annoying and just a little pathetic, but Staats posits that Roth's superlative confidence was a key factor in breaking Eddie out of his shell and helping him share his gift with the world. Staats gingerly approaches their scenes together like an ornithologist peering through binoculars at the mating rituals of rare songbirds, which sounds about right when considering intimacy between heterosexual men.
Costume designer Montana Levi Blanco, in collaboration with wig designer Cookie Jordan, makes these glam rockers look as ostentatious as a crackle of cockatoos. That's one of the things that makes Eddie and Dave especially clever: The rockers of the Van Halen era pushed against gender expectations, sheathing virile bravado in sequined spandex. Recent plays like the TEAM's RoosevElvis and Jaclyn Backhaus's Men on Boats have subverted a conventional view of masculinity by casting women to play their macho protagonists. Staats takes this one step further by gender-bending men who already have hair bigger than most drag queens.
Director Margot Bordelon stages the tale in an outrageous and ever-shifting arena: Reid Thompson's versatile set is decorated with memorabilia, including a framed photo of bassist Michael Anthony, the fourth member of Van Halen who was not deemed significant enough to merit an actor. Jiyoun Chang affects rock concert lighting with moving LEDs and an upstage wall of light. Composer Michael Thurber succeeds in the difficult task of writing songs that evoke other songs, but without violating copyright law (his bottom-shelf version of a certain Michael Jackson song is particularly impressive).
The brilliant use of drag isn't the only thing about Eddie and Dave that recalls the work of late Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam, who once wrote in a vein similar to the opening line of this review, "You are a living mockery of your own ideals. If not, you have set your ideals too low." Like Ludlam (whose most notable roles included Marguerite Gautier and a thinly veiled Maria Callas), Staats is a playwright-performer who clearly has deep respect for her subject and the artistic risks he took when others wouldn't. Van Halen produced rock with symphonic ambition, something that feels lacking in most new music today. It may be ridiculous, but the world would be less vibrant without it.