Taming the Ramones

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

How you feel about the Ramones is going to really shape how you feel about Four Chords and a Gun at the Bootleg Theater.

John Ross Bowie's play catches the Ramones after they've made four albums. They're gigging all the time but they are still struggling to make a buck. They need an album that will take them from playing 300-seat clubs to playing major arenas. They need a hit. So they head out to LA to meet with Phil Spector about redefining the Ramones and making the album that would become The End of the Century.

Now if you're the kind of person who would seek out a "Behind the Music" marathon, you'll probably love Four Chords and a Gun. It has that same backstage feel that, at least superficially, tries to make sense of what went into making the album. As backstories go, this one is pretty good. Across the play's one hour and forty minutes there's a drugged out bassist, an OCD lead singer, the death of a father, the betrayal of a girlfriend, and a gun-toting Phil Spector wearing a cape. Sounds like promising territory, right?

Yes and no.

It's a fun imagining and compilation of some of the myths around the album. It's a little haunting given what we know about Phil Spector in hindsight. And everyone is a suitable caricature of the folks they are portraying. Josh Brenner’s Phil Spector is particularly amusing.

The trouble is, the play has none of the propulsive energy or raw truth of the best of the Ramones. Scene to scene it's engaging but not very deep or compelling. We get rough outlines and easy ideas but nothing really revelatory. You'll find yourself a couple of beats ahead of the story. Phil Spector was a crazy hard ass - check. The Ramones were a quirky dysfunctional bunch - check. KISS sucks - check.

Ultimately, this is a reflective piece of theater. Not because it's deeply thought but because it's mirroring back our own assumptions about the Ramones. It's important if you think the Ramones were important. It's the theatrical version of a tribute band but, and here's the real kicker, without the music. We never really get to feel the vitality of the band. We never see them perform and the closest we come is a couple of sound cues between scenes. That's not enough and it's also not very . . . well punk.

For a band credited with profoundly influencing a whole genre of music and instantly having everyone play faster and harder, Four Chords and a Gun is pretty tame both in form and content.

My advice, if the Ramones made an impact on you, make a playlist of your favorite tracks and crank it on the way to the show because you're not going to get that kind of energy on stage.

Four Chords and a Gun plays at the Bootleg Theater downtown through August 12.

For info on the show and to sign up for the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 1 hour and 40 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Kim Zsebe