By: Paulanne Simmons
June 30, 2021: Forty years ago, the legendary punk rock group, the Ramones, recorded the album “End of the Century” with the legendary producer Phil Spector. In 2016, John Ross Bowie’s Four Chords and a Gun, a play about the drama and sometimes violent conflicts surrounding this endeavor, premiered at L.A.’s Bootleg Theater. In April 2019 it landed at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre, and in May of that year, the play ran at the Broadway Playhouse, in Chicago. Now it is being streamed at Play-PerView, available on demand through June 30.
The show, directed by Jessica Hanna, features Brendon Hunt as Marky Ramone, who functions as narrator when he’s not sleeping; Justin Kirk as the nasty Johnny Ramone; Michael Cassady as Dee Dee Ramone, who is frequently strung out on drugs; and Bobby Conte Thornton as the neurotic lead singer, Joey Ramone. The Ramones, by the way, were not brothers or named Ramone. They were four friends from Forest Hills, Queens, who called themselves Ramone because that was the name Paul McCartney used when he wanted to check into hotels anonymously.
Lena Hall is Linda, who starts off as Joey’s girlfriend, but ends up married to Johnny, although it’s not clear how she’s improved her lot. There are some interesting interactions between the band members and Joey and Linda, but the play doesn’t really get its legs until Ben Feldman appears as Phil Spector.
In the first place, Feldman is the only actor whose New York accent is genuine and believable. All the others would not be familiar to anyone who actually grew up in Queens. In fact, one of the actors sounds like he’d be more at home in one of the poorer neighborhoods of London. Take it from a reviewer who grew up in East New York.
But Feldman adds more to the play than a good imitation of a successful New York Jew. He’s brutal, sarcastic, ambitious and at times philosophical. He has the best lines, and he knows how to deliver them: “The songs are there. The sound is not.” He also knows how to brandish a gun, although, unfortunately, Bowie does not have him actually shoot anyone (which might have improved the play considerably).
Spector needs a hit to pay off his ex-wife and maintain his lifestyle and his ego. The Ramones want to become big stars like the Beatles or Kiss (a group Spector scorns). But the Ramones want success to come easy and Spector wants them to work… and work, and work.
Curiously, although the play never received particularly good reviews, it may benefit from streaming.
Four Chords and a Gun does not have much of a plot and very little actually happens as that skimpy plot unfolds. At one point Feldman describes Spector’s silent role in the film Easy Rider. There is more action in that one scene than in Bowie’s entire play.
It seems Bowie (of The Big Bang Theory) was much more interested in the interplay of the various personalities he is writing about than the music they produced (of which we hear very little). Streaming, which allows us to focus on each character, serves the author’s intent very well. Who asserts power? Who relinquishes power? Where does talent end and ambition begin? How do people slowly destroy themselves? How do they support one another?
These are all interesting questions. And they are especially intense in a play about such eccentric characters. If the play had been a bit shorter it might have held our interest until the end.