“What really happened with David Lee Roth at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards?” we’re asked early in Amy Staats’s Eddie and Dave — both by the play’s narrator, a nostalgic former VJ, and by a spinning projected title in an aggressively ’90s font. The “burning” question winks at us with its blend of urgency and nerdery. We’re witnessing that most niche and intense of human passions: fandom. The MTV VJ (Vanessa Aspillaga) is our host, and we’ve been invited to her memory play. She’s got “tricks up [her] pocket” and “zippers up [her] sleeve” and she’ll be borrowing liberally from Tom Wingfield as she guides us pastwards, through the story of the band that gives her world meaning — and that she believes she almost succeeded in reuniting — the ’80s hair metal superstars Van Halen. It’s The Glam (Rock) Menagerie, and we’re primed for big wigs, bigger guitar licks, and a splashy backstage dish-o-rama of epic rock-and-roll proportions.
It’s a bit of a letdown, then, to find that Staats’s comedy in fact feels modest, even a bit quaint — and not necessarily with the kind of roughhewn earnestness the playwright describes in her stage directions, where she calls for “raggedy grandeur,” “tattered elegance,” and “the janky, earthy brightness of the Coney Island fireworks.” That sounds lovely, but rather than feeling productively limited in its resources — like a couple of kids working imaginative wonders with cardboard and foil in their parents’ garage — Eddie and Dave instead ends up feeling limited in dramatic scope. The play is a loose-limbed, partially mythologized tour of Van Halen’s Wikipedia page, hung around their awkward VMAs appearance in 1996, when David Lee Roth pulled a proto-Kanye and shtickily upstaged the actual award winner, Beck. Ultimately, Staats has written a sincere but simple love letter, a cheerful act of fanfiction that bubbles along enjoyably enough without ever really becoming more than the sum of its parts. “What really happened with David Lee Roth…?” really is the burning question.
The twist in the myth is that the boys of Van Halen are all embodied by women, with Staats herself as the titular fast-fingered Eddie. Valerie Bertinelli — the winsome soap-opera star who married the young guitar god when he was 26 and she was 21 — is played with pursed lips, Daisy Dukes, and teased hair by Omer Abbas Salem, a tall man made even taller in the ’80s heels supplied by Montana Levi Blanco (whose costumes feature a truly impressive amount of synthetic fur). Keeping Eddie’s beat and watching his back is his brother, Van Halen’s drummer Alex (Adina Verson), and swaggering in front, soaking up the glory, getting perpetually under Eddie’s skin and yet pushing him to his most brilliant collaborations is the band’s original frontman, “clinically extroverted rich boy” David Lee Roth a.k.a. Dave (Megan Hill, sporting a chest-hair bathing suit under her rotating raiment of mesh and leather). Van Halen had a bassist too, but as the VJ explains passionately, “there’s not enough time” to include him in this version of the story. In one of the show’s funnier moves, his portrait hangs on a wall, illuminated with a spotlight whenever he’s technically in the room having opinions. “Michael Anthony, stay out of this!” snaps Alex when the portrait dares to glow.
At times it’s great fun to watch the women of Eddie and Dave flex their rock-god muscles — especially as these ostentatious ’80s headbangers who strut an interesting line between androgyny and preening, animal kingdom-style hyper-masculinity. At other times, the cross-gender gambit leads to easy joke territory: your basic women-being-dudes-by-grabbing-their-nutsacks-and-air-humping-and-leering-about-chicks kind of stuff. I’m not jonesing for the casting to have some deeper meaning: Men have played women for thousands of years without having to explain themselves, but cast a woman as a man and people immediately start guessing at your agenda. I’m happy to watch Staats, Verson, and Hill rock out with their cocks out — especially Verson, who almost saunters casually away with the show with her droll, business-like, party-boy-meets-mob-enforcer take on big brother Alex. Staats’s diffident, doe-eyed Eddie — a prodigy, an experimenter, an anti-commercial musical wunderkind who, as he cries out in agony at one point, “just [wants] to play jazz!” — is also sweet and appealing, if something of an intentional stock type. It’s not the performers that leave you wanting more, but the play itself.
Director Margot Bordelon and her design team are in search of that “raggedy grandeur” Staats speaks of, but they end up somewhere in the middle, caught between the glam reality and the homespun “Think when we talk of rockstars that you see them” approach. Reid Thompson’s set gives us faded posters galore, but with a towering wall of faux-speakers in the back, it feels more like an empty club than a wistful, grungy mind palace. The Atlantic’s Stage 2 isn’t a big space, yet I longed for more intimacy, more of that feeling of the tiny, messy, secret place we go to worship our chosen heroes. There’s also a persistent feeling of cognitive dissonance in Palmer Hefferan’s sound design, which makes the most of an impossible situation. As Staats notes in her play’s script, Eddie and Dave is still in process when it comes to “copyright and licensing issues.” Which means that when we hear a song like “Jump” we don’t hear the real thing, but rather a Hefferan-created tune that’s almost the famous riff, but not quite. Nothing kills a dream like a lawsuit.
There’s lots of good humor and a few really good jokes in Eddie and Dave, but right now, there’s also not much there there. “The only thing real about this play is the author’s love for a certain band,” reads a note in the program. Fair enough, I suppose, but I’m not sure a whole play can be built on stanning a legend. I felt myself longing for a clarity of theme: We’re talking about Van Halen, yes, and what else are we talking about? The thrilling, crushing rollercoaster of fame? Celebrity worship? Friendship? Family? Genius? The rewards and traumas of creative collaboration? Nostalgia? The ways our imaginations — our whole souls — are shaped by weird, wonderful, ridiculous gods of our own choosing? I think Staats is most interested in the last of those ideas, but her play dabbles lightly in all of them. It’s striving for something bigger, but it never quite makes the Jump.
Eddie and Dave is at the Atlantic Stage 2.