It probably says something about the self-parodic nature of rock & roll that the gold standard for dramatizing it continues to be Rob Reiner’s classic, 1984 heavy metal mockumentary, This Is Spinal Tap. What Reiner cannily grasped is that when it comes to scripting rock authentically, the fine line between stupid and clever — and the key to tapping the music’s potential narrative power and pathos — runs straight through its most risible clichés and ludicrous postures.
That same insight drives Four Chords and a Gun, John Ross Bowie’s decidedly clever and warmly embracing comedy about the late, great, 1970s New York punk-rock pioneers The Ramones. The nonmusical portrait, having its world premiere at the Bootleg Theater under Jessica Hanna’s resplendent direction, zeroes in on the period between 1978 and 1980. That’s when the band’s desire to follow fellow CGBG acts like Blondie and Talking Heads out of New York’s underground-club ghetto to the mainstream music charts brings them to legendary Los Angeles record producer, hit maker and future convicted murderer Phil Spector for what will be their fifth album, End of the Century.
In lesser hands, that scenario might have produced broadly caricatured farce. But Bowie, a veteran of the sketch comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, spent much of the ’90s fronting the pop-punk trio Egghead, a band steeped in The Ramones’ sardonic, loud-and-fast ethos. The playwright repays that debt in remarkably sensitive and credible characterizations and a unique understanding of the corrosive creative chemistry that defines what is meant by “rock band.”
Four Chords and a Gun plays as a hilarious and Oedipally inflected clash of generations, cultures and ideologies — pop versus punk; old values versus new; liberal versus conservative; East Coast grit versus West Coast excess. It strikes a satisfying balance between comedy of the grotesque and a more poignant and nuanced examination of the marital-like discord that colors close artistic collaboration of any kind.
By the time the story opens, stress fractures have begun to appear in The Ramones’ façade of solidarity, famously symbolized by the members all adopting the same eponymous surname. Johnathan McClain is guitarist Johnny Ramone, the band’s hard-nosed de facto manager and gruffly grating perfectionist behind its 28-songs-per-hour live sound. Lanky Matthew Patrick Davis is the towering, awkward lead singer Joey, the band’s sensitive albeit OCD poet and dreamer. Michael Daniel Cassady is Dee Dee, the junk-addled idiot savant of a bass player. James Pumphrey is drummer Marky, the play’s narrator already well on the road to alcoholic ruin. And Arden Myrin plays Linda, Joey’s groupie girlfriend and the band’s Yoko-like and superficial fifth wheel.
It is only when the scene shifts to L.A., and to Spector’s sprawling and opulent hilltop mansion (on David Offner’s elegant and versatile louvered set), that the play kicks into comic overdrive. Josh Brener’s Spector is a masterpiece of wildly funny, perfectly timed mimicry — a diminutive portrait of effete flamboyance and outrageous, self-aggrandizing eccentricity. His entrance is also when the play’s comic vision fully crystalizes as the producer serves as both deadpan straight man and catalyst to the emerging power struggle between Johnny and Joey for the soul of the band.
Hanna choreographs the comedy with taut and unflagging energy, and her thoughtfully composed pictures are ably augmented by Cricket Myers' explosive sound (which includes the show’s handful of emblematic Ramones and Spector recordings), Brandon Baruch’s evocative lighting and the period atmospherics of Corwin Evans’ video projections. Perhaps the show’s most remarkable coup, however, is its combination of uncanny physical casting, Lauren Wilde’s exacting wig work and Kerry Hennessy’s iconic costuming. It completes spitting-image impersonations that are all the more astonishing for the commitment and pinpoint accents with which the ensemble ultimately nails Bowie’s sweetly touching tribute.
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd, Westlake; through July 31. Bootlegtheater.org.