Atlantic Stage 2
330 West 16th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through February 17, $56.50
I have a difficult confession to make: I have never been a fan of Van Halen, the 1970s/’80s hard rockers with such hits as “Jump,” “Jaimie’s Cryin’,” “Hot for Teacher,” and “Runnin’ with the Devil.” But I am a big fan of Eddie and Dave, first-time playwright Amy Staats’s very funny show about the on-again, off-again relationship between the band’s songwriters, guitarist and composer Eddie Van Halen and lyricist and lead singer David Lee Roth — which has been extended at Atlantic’s Stage 2 through February 17. The story is told in flashback by a former MTV VJ based somewhat on Kurt Loder (“This is my memory play,” she says), centering on the group’s very brief reunion at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards, when Eddie; his brother, drummer Alex Van Halen; bassist Michael Anthony; and Roth got together for the first time in more than a decade to present a prize. At the podium, Alex leans over and whispers something to Dave; what was said is the mystery behind the play and a solid-enough excuse to dig into the band’s strange and bizarre history. But Staats pulls an outrageous gender switch in her casting: She plays Eddie, Megan Hill is Dave, Adina Verson is Alex, Omer Abbas Salem is Valerie Bertinelli (Eddie’s eventual wife), and Vanessa Aspillaga is the VJ, a roadie, the Van Halens’ father, Quincy Jones, and other minor male characters. Anthony is portrayed by a framed photograph.
Scenic designer Reid Thompson has filled the theater with posters and flyers advertising such other 1970s/’80s groups as Pantera, Misfits, Iron Maiden, Dead Kennedys, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, and the Ramones; as the audience enters the space, music by Journey, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, and Aerosmith is likely to have attendees of a certain age singing along and playing air guitar. Montana Levi Blanco’s costumes are send-ups of what the band really wore, including Eddie’s overalls and flannel shirt and Diamond Dave’s flashy over-the-top style. Cookie Jordan is responsible for the fab hair and wigs, featuring some damn fine mullets. Whether because of rights issues or as an artistic (financial?) choice, there is no actual Van Halen music in the show, only instrumental snippets (by Michael Thurber) heard here and there or seen in Shawn Boyle’s projections; in fact, no original Van Halen songs or albums are even mentioned by name except for their 2012 comeback record, A Different Kind of Truth.
None of the actors attempts to impersonate the famous people they portray, instead turning them into eccentric characters who say and do a lot of dumb but endearing stuff, the key word being “dumb.” Thus, Anthony comes off as the most intelligent member of the group, since he never speaks. (“We can’t talk about him; there’s not enough time,” the VJ explains.) Gleefully directed by Margot Bordelon, Eddie and Dave is a highly original mini-soap-rock opera that would delight Wayne and Garth (“Wayne’s World! Excellent!”), a fun and snarky account of a group of grown-up men, and one woman, who are not the brightest bulbs in the chandelier but managed to carve out some pretty successful careers. I’m still not a Van Halen fan, but I definitely have a newfound admiration for their wild and wacky tale.