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Eddie and Dave

Theatre Review by David Hurst - January 22, 2019

Omer Abbas Salem, Amy Staats, and Megan Hill
Photo by Ahron R Foster

If you're a die-hard Van Halen fan who lies awake at night, tossing and turning, unable to sleep because you're obsessed with knowing what really happened with David Lee Roth at the MTV Video Music Awards (VMA's) on September 4, 1996, then you're in luck. Stop reading this review and run, don't walk, to Atlantic 2 in Chelsea to buy yourself a ticket to Amy Staats' new play, Eddie and Dave, for it is the answer to your prayers. For those of you who haven't been kept awake or have only a passing interest in the story of Van Halen's rise to international, rock-band legend and the personal squabbles of its lead singer, David Lee Roth, and its electrifying guitar virtuoso, Edward Van Halen, Staats' new play may prove a pleasant diversion thanks to the novel and often funny way she and director Margot Bordelon tell the Van Halen story. Or you can stay home and watch Netflix.

For you see, the spin Staats and Bordelon put on this story of fame, fortune, betrayal, addiction and what-if's, is that the men in the Van Halen pantheon are all portrayed by women on Atlantic 2's intimate stage buried deep in a basement on West 16th Street in Chelsea. Yes, that's correct. Women play the hyper-masculine rock gods and the lone woman in the play, Val, a.k.a. the television actress Valerie Bertinelli (for those of you born after 1975) who was married to Eddie for more than 25 years, is portrayed by a very tall man, Omer Abbas Salem who, it must be said, makes an especially auspicious New York debut in both heels and flats.

The plot of Staats' play is easily gleaned from Van Halen's Wikipedia entry, as well as any number of rock websites (of which there are multitudes). Set between 1962 and 2014, and told in flashback by the wonderful Vanessa Aspillaga, who portrays an out-of-work MTV VJ (think Kurt Loder) as well as a trove of supporting characters like Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson and Sammy Hagar, the band's biography is easily digested. Eddie is played like a frightened hedgehog by Staats herself, while the strutting and flamboyant David Lee Roth (Dave) is given a full-tilt rendering courtesy of Megan Hill. The luminous Adina Verson (so wonderful in MCC's recent Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties and on Broadway in Indecent) slyly portrays Alex Van Halen (Al), Eddie's older brother and the drummer of the group. This leaves only Van Halen's bassist, Michael Anthony, who is conspicuously absent from the proceedings (as he has been from Val Halen itself since 2006) except in the visage of a portrait on the wall that's illuminated from time to time and at which the cast beams beatifically in awed silence. One can only imagine Anthony's exclusion from Eddie and Dave is due to Staats' dislike of him or a legal issue with regard to any onstage portrayal. Speaking of legal issues, the script points out: "Eddie and Dave is in process. We have a music team in place and are working with a lawyer to do due diligence with any copyright and licensing issues." I bet they do!

You may be thinking — what's the point? It's a valid question that's only partially answered by the Atlantic production, which wears out its welcome after only 60 of its 90 minutes. Obviously, Staats is obsessed with Van Halen and loves the band; it even says so in the program: "The only thing real about this play is the author's love for a certain band." Clearly, Staats and Bordelon have been influenced by plays like Jaclyn Backhaus's Men On Boats in which women played pioneer men on a geological expedition into the Grand Canyon that was critically acclaimed at The Wild Project in 2015. For centuries men have claimed power by playing women in everything from Shakespeare to drag productions of The Women. It's refreshing to see women reclaiming agency by playing all the men's roles, particularly when the men in question exude the kind of toxic masculinity Gillette's public service announcements now warn us about. The Van Halen rock-n-rollers, who grappled with serious addiction issues Staats only touches on in her play, are larger than life personalities to which women bring a more grounded sensibility. Casting women to play these men is similar to Hamilton casting young black and Latino actors to play old white men; it's a fresh sensibility that allows us to see those characters in a new light. One just wishes Staats' characters were more interesting that they are in Eddie and Dave.

Eddie and Dave
Through February 10
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: