When it comes to glamorous drag, men who impersonate women have traditionally had an unfair advantage over their female counterparts. Just think of the boundlessly flamboyant options available for guys to transform into gals: baubles, boas, high heels, bouffants, ad infinitum.
As for women doing men, what’s their choice, really, beyond business suits and sloppy sweats?
“Eddie and Dave,” the larky if bloated sketch of a bio-comedy that opened Tuesday at Stage 2 of the Atlantic Theater Company, helps to correct that imbalance. Its title characters, based on the original guitarist and lead singer of chart-topping band Van Halen, are indeed men portrayed by women.
But these figures hail from the 1980s, a decade in which big hair and glam metal rock ruled the airwaves. The professional (and often offstage) attire of the male musicians who practiced this earsplitting art embraced a peacock panoply of baubles, boas, high heels and, yes, bouffant coiffures. And it was a look worn not with Dietrich-style elegance, but with swaggering and sweaty machismo.
The female cast members of “Eddie and Dave,” written by Amy Staats and directed by Margot Bordelon, appear to be having a high old time finding the testosterone within their characters’ teased hair. Swathed in costumes (by Montana Levi Blanco) that might have come from a Ziegfeld girl’s trunk and wigs (by Cookie Jordan) that could house a family of squirrels, the angry young rockers of this rambunctious play demonstrate that wearing sequins and fishnets is no guarantee against bad-boy behavior.
Even by the tumultuous standards of hard rock relationships, Van Halen was notable for its break-up-make-up infighting. Created by the Dutch-born Van Halen brothers, Al (Adina Verson) and guitar genius Eddie (Staats), this California-bred group found its mojo when charismatic, turbocharged David Lee Roth (Megan Hill) became their lead singer.
Clashes between the introverted, artistically ambitious Eddie and the showoff, crowd-pleasing Diamond Dave (as he was known) were commonplace from the beginning, and reached a very public and mortifying climax when the (temporarily reunited) band appeared onstage at the 1996 MTV Video Music Awards. That’s the taking-off point for a journey into flashbacks, narrated by a former music reporter and video jockey, identified only as MTV VJ (a wired but weary Vanessa Aspillaga).
“Ooh, such a dirty habit,” MTV VJ says winningly. She’s just lit a cigarette, but the habit she’s referring to is “nostalgia.” She goes on to explain, “This is my memory play. It is brightly lit, it is sentimental, it is not at all realistic.” (MTV VJ has obviously read the opening pages of “The Glass Menagerie.”)
The setting for such time travel (designed by Reid Thompson) looks like a wood-paneled, basement rec room in suburbia, decorated with rock memorabilia that includes lots of guitars and a few gold records. It suggests a place where teenage boys might assemble to get high, get rowdy and blast power chords.
This is appropriate for a show that tracks the evolution of a group of men who were trapped in eternal scrappy adolescence by outrageous fame. Much of what follows, with MTV VJ setting the scenes with timeline interjections, finds the Van Halen team interacting explosively (throwing punches, wrestling, swigging booze, snorting coke), while displaying the emotional intelligence of 13-year-olds.
Initially, this is pretty funny. So are the deadpan fraternal personae of Staats and Verson, contrasted with the grandstanding extroversion of Hill’s Dave. Wittiest of all perhaps is the presentation of Van Halen’s fourth member, bassist Michael Anthony, portrayed by a framed photograph, which is only occasionally acknowledged by the others.
Ultimately, though, the comedy is too blunt and repetitive to sustain the 90 uninterrupted minutes of “Eddie and Dave.” Staats (who appeared memorably in the Mad Ones’ brilliant “Miles for Mary”) avoids the sharp, satirical focus of the classic rock-mockumentary “This Is Spinal Tap.” Her approach is both sloppier and more sincere.
“Eddie and Dave” is, in part, a burned-out fan’s notes, via MTV VJ, who has a scrapbook of a mind that blurs firsthand observation with tabloid headlines. If you do not belong to that category yourself, you may be a bit baffled (or bored) by re-enactments of events like that notorious MTV awards appearance.
There is throughout, though, a mind-bending glee in watching women taking on the extravagant guises of hot-dog rock ‘n’ rollers, who for all their strutting machismo never grow into manhood. By the way, “Eddie and Dave” does feature one notable female character other than MTV VJ. That’s Valerie Bertinelli, the sitcom star who married Eddie, played here by Omer Abbas Salem.
The outfits worn by Salem, it should be noted, are models of understatement compared to the getups of the Van Halen boys. Though she is inflected with ripples of silly celebrity shallowness, Salem’s Val nonetheless registers as the sanest person in the room. Even when it’s cross-dress-up time, it evidently takes a woman to be an adult in the excessive ‘80s.
‘Eddie and Dave’
Through Feb. 10 at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
Credits: Written by Amy Staats; directed by Margot Bordelon; sets by Reid Thompson; costumes by Montana Levi Blanco; lights by Jiyoun Chang; sound by Palmer Hefferan; projections by Shawn Boyle; original compositions by Michael Thurber; hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan; fight director, Mike Rossmy; dramaturge, Abigail Katz; production stage manager, Megan Schwarz Dickert; production manager, Ian Paul Guzzone; associate artistic director, Annie MacRae; general manager, Pamela Adams. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director.
Cast: Vanessa Aspillaga (MTV VJ), Megan Hill (Dave), Omer Abbas Salem (Val), Amy Staats (Eddie) and Adina Verson (Al).
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.