Punk rock band The Ramones came together in 1974 Queens, New York. Musicians adopted a single last name though none were related. The group featured: Lead singer Joey Ramone (1951-2001), Bassist Dee Dee Ramone (1951-2002), Guitarist Johnny Ramone (1948-2004) and successive drummers Marky, Richie and Elvis Ramone. Never stadium-successful, they nonetheless performed 2,263 concerts, touring nonstop for 22 years. In 2002, the original group was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Green Day notably played their music.
Playwright (and actor/sketch comedy performer) John Ross Bowie must’ve been a diehard Ramones groupie. Marky Ramone (Brendan Hart) tells us “This is a memory play and they’re not all memories and some of it is total bullshit, but a lot is really, really true and fucking crazy.” The actor also reads stage directions throughout.
Characters are well defined, situations credible and clear, dialogue realistic, vernacular rings true. Historic structure is accurate as are relationship facts. When Phil Spector analyzes what’s wrong with a recording, music-speak is on target. Ben Feldman’s portrayal is terrific – expression, voice, and gestures inclusive. The piece is well researched.
We meet the men backstage after a performance in 1978. Johnny (Justin Kirk, who skillfully manifests the clear-eyed, practical band member) counts the take. Joey (Bobby Conte Thornton, palpably the sweet one) flirts with girlfriend Linda (Lena Hall) who likes the way he smells after a show. (The play is full of colorful details.) Dee Dee (Michael Cassady) promises to stay off drugs i.e. hard drugs when they go to L.A. to record at the label’s insistence. Renowned producer Phil Spector wants to work with the band.
By Christmas of ’78, the men find themselves in California at the producer’s “fucking castle,” a mansion so big several of them get lost. Marky is shirtless and drunk (also too often on screen with nothing to do). Dee Dee is spaced out. Both of them and Joey take pills. “This guy has changed lives,” Joey moons. “If we get bigger, we could actually affect people.”
Spector arrives. He’s calculating, pointedly tolerant, and lascivious. Pitching Joey, he also eyes the lanky musician as if his next meal, exclaiming on the young man’s height like a forties film heroine. (Not unbelievable.) “Music is all technique now. There’s no heart. You can change that.” Joey is not only stoned, but obviously prone to rose-colored glasses.
Only Johnny is against working with Spector. “He’s an old fashioned fruit from the last century.” The producer has a reputation for drugs, violence, control issues and off the wall craziness, not to mention his last hit was, in fact, seven years ago. (Spector had 25 enormous hits in his heyday.) He needs the money as much as The Ramones need a charted song. With Johnny, he’s realistic. “You think we’re going to do this forever?! Some of you are thirty!”
The play goes back and forth from Los Angeles to New York as the album End of the Century (the group’s most successful) gets made, relationships fray, and Spector lives up to his reputation. A tangent story (true) involves Linda’s changing partners. Though Lena Hall is excellent, it’s a thankless role. As Bowie took a deep dive into this (the play wants editing), he could’ve used some of that time to more fully develop two of the Ramones that received shorter shrift. An epilogue fills us in to the “end.”
Queens accents are surprisingly good, wigs not so much. Backgrounds – the actors are in zoom squares -are evocative. One nifty directorial touch is that characters rise to kiss – we miss the actual touch of lips while seeing them only from the chest down. Oddly it works.
Director Jessica Hanna has a feel for attitude and idioms. She plausibly conjures being high. Pacing works well.
The question is how much do you care about the Ramones or a punk rock group of the era?
Theatermania asked John Ross Bowie, Why the Ramones? “I’ve been a Ramones fan since I was 14, and as I delved into the stories behind them, I found them a group full of contradictions. They dress like tough guys but only Johnny was an authentic tough guy. There was something aggressive but also sweet about their music. And then, there was a really interesting dynamic about the band recording their fifth album, which is the one they did with Phil Spector.
On the surface, there was a push-pull between people who just wanted to fire out inspired punk rock blasts and a guy who was trying to craft a perfect pop record. Then, you go deeper into it and you learn that the Ramones were going through a vicious love triangle at one point, their bassist was struggling with addiction, and Spector was, obviously, famously crazy and eventually died in jail serving time for a murder charge…”
Four Chords and A Gun
A True Story of The Ramones
Written by John Ross Bowie
Directed by Jessica Hanna
Video Design- Corwin Evans
Proceeds benefit Food on Foot
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