Since July 7th at the Bootleg Theater on 2220 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, the play “Four Chords and a Gun,” produced by Brian Nitzkin, written by John Ross Bowie, and directed by Jessica Hanna, has transported punk-rock lovers to nearly four decades prior. The date is December 1978, when, over the course of two narrative years, attendees are able to intimately witness the events that led up to arguably the Ramones’ most legendary album, “End of the Century.”
The casting is astounding, featuring six stage and screen-accredited actors in the prime of their game, who uncannily resemble the real individuals whom they portray. James Pumphrey is Marky Ramone, Johnathan McClain portrays Johnny Ramone, Michael Daniel Cassady takes on Dee Dee Ramone, Matthew Patrick Davis stars as Joey Ramone, Arden Myrin is Linda Daniele (Joey’s girlfriend and then Johnny’s wife), and Josh Brener is the ingenious but disturbed Phil Spector.
Historically, Spector was a celebrated, albeit colorfully idiosyncratic, producer who was significant to the success of the Beatles’ album “Let it Be” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Until the Ramones flew from New York to meet and work with the gun-toting caped impresario inside his sprawling mansion in Southern California, beginning a partnership that would result in the release of “End of the Century,” Spector had not earned a hit in seven years. In more ways than one, it was a symbiotic relationship that had to be forged, though distressed and disheveled by the flawed individuals who comprised it.
Ultimately, that’s where the play succeeds most – by showing us how the central characters were no different than the average man or woman, caught in between the allure of temptation, the imprisonment of mental illness, a reclusive narrow reality, and the restlessness of romance.
The conveyance of such themes, sandwiched between the the subtle layers of humanity proffered in the play, are a testament to the naturalistic acting know-how of its primary players. For instance, James Pumphrey, who is also the narrator in the story, delivers Marky Ramone’s oblivious angst, shirtless and all, without going overboard with the delivery. He rarely loses his temper, but when he does — in a (satirical) proclamation about how the Beatles’ legacy owes credit to Yoko Ono’s terminal intervention — the audience erupts positively.
Cassady, likewise, portrays the drug-addled anxiousness of Dee Dee Ramone with precision and staunch commitment. Even when he’s not spotlighted in a scene, Cassady makes sure to fidget, bite his nails, and squirm at the mere thought, for example, of how easy it is for his character to get lost in Spector’s mansion. Dee Dee is led astray by his drug dependency, becoming a follower to his vices that deprive him of his agency as a human being, and the accountability for his own life, which Spector mercilessly toys with toward the culmination of the play.
Singularly, Davis fills out Joey Ramone’s height and obsessive-compulsive personality almost effortlessly. Because of Davis’ complex performance, we get a glimpse into how Joey can be both level-headed and beset by irrational notions, like keeping his black boots on for a month. This internal struggle to be normal versus abnormal is manifested in the way Davis lives through his character by philosophizing with his hands — his thoughts afoot with each measured pace — and arguing logically about how his boots are an extension of his identity. In total, he’s the cross-section of a 30-year-old man, and boy, made to be unaware by the naiveté of the latter.
Joey’s lack of perspective is what may have undermined his relationship to Linda Daniele, whom he adored, yet was sometimes too overwhelming for. This is illustrated in a scene where Myrin, while channeling Linda’s bubbling vivacity in a sleek black dress, is ready for a night on the town with her boyfriend; however, she is unceremoniously presented with the obstacle of trying to get Joey off the couch and out of his manager’s apartment. In watching this unfold, the audience can empathize with how the energy is dragged out of the usually zestful Linda, who is put in the unenviable position of being the adult to Joey’s puerile tendencies.
So, as unforgivable as it is when Linda ends up cheating on Joey with bandmate Johnny, it is categorically understandable. Johnny, brought to life again by the talented Johnathan McClain, is the epitome of the adage, “appearances can be deceiving.” He is counter-culture, yet paradoxically a conservative Republican in his day-to-day affairs, which somehow contributes to him being the sanest Ramone. McClain plays Johnny with a principled respectability, as a guitarist who has a strong connection to his heritage and family. In contrast to Joey, Johnny is a pensive leader among men, who was neither too blighted by inner demons nor external substances, and one who had the courage to stand up to the authoritative Spector.
Needless to say, it’s challenging to imagine someone who is both flamboyant and despotic, but that was (is) the infamous Phil Spector, whose characterization is the catalyst and agent of effect in “Four Chords and a Gun.” His offbeat ways, oftentimes grueling, were the reason, especially to him, why his albums were pitch perfect even if it meant performing the same guitar chord for hours on end or listening to one song 203 consecutive times. Undoubtedly, Josh Brener becomes the inscrutable, ego-ridden Spector by being disarming one moment and callous the next. More importantly, Brener infuses every word with enough righteousness that we become forgetful of his character’s delusions, and simply chalk them up to his esteemed reputation.
“Four Chords and a Gun” is highly recommended for artistically resuscitating and humanizing the larger-than-life Ramones, including their cult of personalities, with an astonishingly realistic production.
There are six more performances of “Four Chords and a Gun” – on Friday, August 5th at 7 pm; Saturday, August 6th at 7 pm; Sunday, August 7th at 2 pm; Friday, August 12th at 7 pm; Saturday, August 13th at 7 pm; and Sunday, August 14th at 2 pm.
For more information, visit www.bootlegtheater.org