Stage Door Review 2019

Four Chords and a Gun

Apr 11, 2019

✭✭✭

by John Ross Bowie, directed by Richard Ouzounian

• Starvox Entertainment, Fleck Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto

April 10-28, 2019;

• Broadway Playhouse, Chicago, IL

May 18-June 2, 2019

“We’re a happy family”

Four Chords and Gun is a play about punk rock group the Ramones by John Ross Bowie, best-known as the character Barry Kripke in the sitcom Big Bang Theory. Publicity is at pains to point out that Four Chords is a play, not a musical, although the play is followed by a band playing a concert of Ramones’ tunes. It premiered in California in 2016 to mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the Ramones’ self-titled first album. The play itself, however, concerns the recording of the Ramones’ fifth album in 1979 when the group worked with the legendary producer Phil Spector. Though the entire six-member cast give impressive performances, it’s hard to know what point Bowie is trying to make other than documenting an aberrant episode in the Ramones’ career.

When Phil Spector, who had been attending Ramones concerts, first offered to produce a record for them, they refused. Later, after the band’s fourth album proved less popular than its third, the band’s management asked Spector to help. Spector had written and/or produced 18 number one singles for the likes of The Ronettes, The Righteous Brothers, The Beatles, John Lennon and George Harrison, though at the time of the play he had had a dry spell for seven years,

The play begins on the band’s home turf of Queens when they agree they need to do something to increase their popularity and should take the chance to let Phil Spector make them stars. Johnny (Cyrus Lane), the most cynical and level-headed of the band despite severe anger management problems, is aware that Spector may have had an illustrious past but remains sceptical about his wonder-working abilities. 

The remainder of the play charts the band’s first meeting with the bizarre Spector (Ron Pederson) and their initial awe at his wealth, but it then turns darker as the four, especially Johnny, become increasing frustrated with Spector’s maniacal perfectionism. He has Johnny play a single chord more than 40 times until He thinks it’s right. He has the band listen to a song more than 200 times to try to determine what sound it’s missing. Spector forces them to “work” in this way thirteen days in a row for up to fourteen hours a day. But the album finally is recorded and becomes the highest charting record of their career reaching number 14 on the UK Albums Chart, which as Johnny says “doesn’t count”, and number 44 on the US Billboard 200 Chart. No number one singles came of the effort.

Early in the play the main source of humour is the general dimwittedness of the band. Johnny is always angry, Joey (Justin Goodhand) always worries, Dee Dee (Paolo Santalucia) is always out of it and Marky (James Smith) is always sleepy or asleep. Their undisguised awe at the size of Spector’s mansion and their view of Spector as creepy Vincent Price-like figure are the funniest bits of the show.

Soon, though, Bowie decides to show us what has caused the band members to be as they are, and it is then that the tone darkens. Johnny may be angry but it is because he is a controlling egomaniac interested only in getting what he wants, including Joey’s longtime girlfriend Linda (Vanessa Smythe). Joey worries because he has obsessive compulsive disorder that makes him have to touch everything at least twice and to write down immediately anything he thinks he needs to remember. As played by Justin Goodhand, Joey also seems to place somewhere on the autism spectrum since his reaction to the most troubling news is usually no reaction at all. Dee Dee is out of it because he is a drug addict who is happy only when he is high. Marky, who initially seems to be the most naturally humorous of the four, turns out to be an alcoholic who resorts to hiding his liquor from his bandmates. 

It may be that John Ross Bowie assumes we see the irony inherent in the Ramones’ thinking that Phil Spector can make them stars, because Bowie never makes this irony clear. The Ramones were the first American punk rock band. Its entire aesthetic was to reject production values and to strip rock and roll back to its basics. They rejected Elvis, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles as models and strove for a totally natural, harsh, unadorned sound. To quote from the Ramones’ song “Do You Remember Rock ’n’ Roll Radio?” (1980), “We need change, we need it fast / Before rock’s just part of the past / ’Cause lately it all sounds the same to me”. 

Phil Spector, by contrast, could not have had an aesthetic more opposite to punk rock. He was the proud inventor of the “Wall of Sound” where he doubled a band’s instruments to create greater impact. He used echo chambers, multitrack recording and overdubbing so that he could replace the performance he didn’t like by one band member with a part played and recorded separately by an entirely different musician. For him the producer made the record. The band was just merely his material. 

What Bowie gives us in the play are arguments about multiple takes but Bowie never has Spector and any of the Ramones debate the fundamental differences of their views of popular music. In later years the Ramones looked on End of the Century as one of their worst albums since it betrayed everything they has been aiming for when they first formed their band. Indeed, even if the Ramones were not popular in their own time, people have come to see that their most groundbreaking work was in the four albums before End of the Century when they unwisely but understandably tried to widen their appeal. 

Since Bowie does not make what would seem to be the most essential point of portraying the Ramones’ time with Spector, the play seems to have no goal. It already has no plot since it consists solely of various episodes that take place during the Ramones’ unexpectedly long recording sessions with Spector. They build in tension so far that Spector, as per legend, draws a gun on Johnny to force him play the same chord one more time after Johnny has become fed up with Spector’s obsessive perfectionism. 

Since the play does not really tell a story, it succeeds best as a series of portraits of the characters involved. For this purpose the show could not have a better cast. Cyrus Lane is an intense Johnny, who always seems ready to explode and indeed often does explode with the slightest provocation. We would like to see another side to him, but when we do Lane frighteningly shows that other side to be macho, brutal and selfish. As the most rational member of the band, Lane’s Johnny is so adamant about what group stands for it’s hard to understand how he could agree to working with Spector at all. Lane manages to convey Johnny’s personality despite a collar-length wig of straight hair that blocks our view of his face whenever he speaks in profile which, unfortunately, seem to be most of the time.

Justin Goodhand makes Joey an initially funny but ultimately sad character whose OCD is controlling his life and who seems unable to recognize the fact much less do anything about it. Goodhand portrays Joey as someone who appears to be watching his life from the outside and sees it drifting away.

As Marky, James Smith is the most relatable member of the band who seems to take nothing too seriously. This attitude, unfortunately includes numbing himself constantly with alcohol so that he is seldom awake to help diffuse some of the many scenes of strife between Johnny and everyone else.

Of the four actors playing the Ramones, Paolo Santalucia gives the strongest, most moving performance. We may at first think that his Dee Dee is amusing because he seems so dumb. Once we recognize Dee Dee is a drug addict, all that humour fades away. His attempt to sniff spilled cocaine off the floor may be funny but it is also pathetic. Santalucia is the only one of the four who portrays his character’s traits as progressively getting worse thoughout the action. In just 90 minutes Santalucia has Dee Dee transform from a vigorous childlike adult into a young man completely withdrawn into himself who seems to have been weeping constantly. Santalucia makes the scene absolutely heartbreaking when Dee Dee confesses to Marky that he once was a gay hustler in his youth to pay for his habit. This makes it all the more painful when we hear his Dee Dee explain how perfect the world seems, for a time, when he is high. 

Ron Pederson plays Phil Spector as a man who has become so eccentric he does even recognize how he appears to others. Pederson gives him the cool demeanour of someone who is so completely self-absorbed and convinced of his superiority that he can relate to other people only as serfs to manipulate whatever way he wishes. As Pederson plays it, it is no surprise that Spector would eventually threaten Johnny and with a gun since he has shown that Spector will do whatever it takes to get what he wants. In an epilogue Bowie has Marky remind the audience that Spector is currently serving a term in prison for murdering a young woman in his home. Pederson seems to have Spector’s future in mind since his personal coldness comes across as very close to psychosis.

Vanessa Smythe as Linda, Joey’s girlfriend, initially appears to be the only mentally stable character in the play. Smythe makes us understand Linda’s frustration with the unresponsive Joey and her attraction to the domineering Johnny. Yet, her best scene is her dressing down of Johnny for being afraid of losing his macho image by being seen to carry groceries with her. She makes us want to cheer for standing up to him.

The action of the play takes place on Nick Blais’s clever set that can easily change from the grungy places where the Ramones hang out to the elegant parlour of Spector’s home. The one peculiarity of Blais’s design is the gigantic hole in the back wall of Spector’s parlour through which he appears. Is this wall some allusion to Spector’s famous “Wall of Sound”? Is it some sign that the reputation Spector has built up is crumbling? Whatever the hole is meant to be remains a mystery.

On the front of the programme and in the Notes of director Richard Ouzounian it states, “Phil Spector made the Ramones a legend and destroyed the band”. As the play itself demonstrates, this is simply not true. In Marky’s epilogue we hear that the band stayed together for 16 years after their sessions with Spector, so how exactly did Spector destroy them? Marky was kicked out of the band for missing performances because of his alcoholism. It had nothing to do with Spector. Neither does Johnny’s stealing of Joey’s girlfriend. 

As the play indicates, the real source of the Ramones’ temporary abandonment of their pioneering punk style was their desire to be popular. What would have been far more interesting to explore is the paradox many artists of all kinds experience of trying to be true to their ideals while also trying to make enough money from their art to live. The play takes for granted that being more popular is the right thing to do, but Spector’s work on End of the Century is not ultimately what made the Ramones a legend or led to their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. 

After 90 minutes of a play that really does nothing but serve as a background bio for the band, there is a concert by an eight-man band covering Ramones’ tunes. For Ramones fans this may be the most enjoyable part of the evening since the picture Bowie paints of the group is so depressing. 

If you can enjoy fine acting for its own sake, then Four Chords and a Gun supplies that in abundance. If you have heard of the Ramones and Phil Spector, you may wish to see the play simply out of curiosity. If you have never heard of either, you won’t discover much to explain why the Ramones and Spector were important or why their collaboration should be such a paradox. In that case, the after-play concert may explain more about the Ramones than the play itself. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Paolo Santalucia, James Smith, Vanessa Smythe, Justin Goodhand and Cyrus Lane; Justin Goodhand, Paolo Santalucia, Ron Pederson (behind sofa) and James Smith; Ron Pederson as Phil Spector. © 2019 Dahlia Katz.

For tickets, visit www.4chordsplay.com.