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Tired of all those idiotic millennials with their sappy nostalgia, trying to pass off the 1980s as something more than a spasm of shame and revulsion? Then American Psycho is the show for you, bringing the ruthlessness of a serial killer in an orgiastic bloodbath to its depiction of the decade that annihilated taste, restraint and feeling. Director Rupert Goold, composer Duncan Sheik and book writer Roberta Aguirre-Sacasa crank up the satirical volume on Bret Easton Ellis’ cult novel in a musical with design to die for and a cool, period-appropriate electro-pop score. And as Patrick Bateman, the chiseled Benjamin Walker takes us on a riveting journey of existential ennui that bleeds into violence before bottoming out in anguish.
Is it a first-rate musical? Not quite. The songs of narcissism, label-whoring, contemptuous greed and status-seeking one-upmanship are just as often lists as mini-narratives, even if they’re fun and catchy. (Who could resist a number that rhymes “charred mahi-mahi” with “Isaac Mizrahi?”) And the more reflective turn in the second act doesn’t have quite the same seductive stiletto-blade wit as the first, which bookends its celebration of unapologetic shallowness with gory splatter kills. But the show is a very sharp, distinctly theatrical treatment of its source material, in many ways improving on Mary Harron’s movie version from 2000.
It also illustrates, with the insouciant wink of greater hindsight, that while the materialistic fetishes may have evolved, the soulless ethos that feeds them remains the same. On the first press night, three sleekly put-together Kardashian Klones sitting behind me had to turn up the volume on their discussion of shopping and hydra-facials in order to be heard over the unsettling pre-show soundscape. What seemed like minutes later, their Reagan-era counterparts were up onstage reeling off designer names in “You Are What You Wear,” with only their hair volume and shoulder-pads to distinguish them. “No, there’s nothing remotely ironic/About our love of Manolo Blahnik,” goes their musical mantra.
Twenty-five years after its publication, Ellis’ controversial novel has lost much of its power to shock and scandalize in the post-Tarantino, post-torture porn age. Still, Goold and Aguirre-Sacasa have been prudent in toning down the book’s perceived misogyny and sexual violence while honing its acerbic portrait of late capitalism in a milieu where surface is everything.
Crucially for a musical, they have allowed their hollow-eyed, psychopathic antihero, Patrick Bateman, a residue of damaged humanity. Walker is charismatic and commanding, but it’s the broken, corrosively conflicted aspects of his characterization that make the performance so hypnotic, especially as Patrick unravels in front of friends, family and colleagues who refuse to hear his murderous mea culpa. Whether the blood on his hands is real or delusional, who could blame a young Wall Street investment banker swimming in such a competitive shark tank for wanting to hack up a few bodies after hours? Poor puppy.
Originally seen in 2013 at London’s Almeida Theatre, where Goold is artistic director, the production takes a complete U-turn from the elegant economy of his work earlier this season on King Charles III. Here, he’s back to the more-is-more, hyperkinetic high style of Enron, and the arty cinematic horror tropes and hallucinatory atmosphere of his Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart. It’s an optimum match of director and material.
The design elements also are a superb fit, particularly Es Devlin’s monochromatic sets — chilly and sterile like Patrick’s mental landscape, with clever use of boxy forced perspective to suggest a mind closing in on itself. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes capture the ostentatious slickness of expensive ‘80s threads, without pushing the vulgarity too far into kitsch. (Love the bloody sequined headpieces and fringed epaulets on those goose-stepping models.) Justin Townsend’s lighting goes from hard, steely glare through smoky nightlife to the satanic wash of an elaborate carnage fantasia, stopping en route for a sunshiny Hamptons interlude that’s like a Ralph Lauren spread on steroids. Dan Moses Schreier’s sound design evokes a gelid world in which every vapid comment echoes alongside every inner scream, and Finn Ross’ dynamic video components make brilliant use of Devlin’s set as a screen. Nothing says “ravenous appetite” like the words “I want it all” expanding across the frame in all-caps in the opening number, “Selling Out.”
The homoerotic eye-candy is considerable, from the first image of Walker’s Patrick, who’s not kidding about his “ripped body.” He ascends on a vertical tanning bed clad only in tighty-whities as he walks us through his morning skincare routine, wardrobe choices and apartment decor.
It was a smart choice to lift this opener from one of Christian Bale’s more iconic moments in the movie. Likewise the gleeful butchering that closes Act 1. Walker puts an amusingly playful spring in his dance moves as he holds forth like some pedantic music critic on Huey Lewis and the News (“Hip to Be Square” is one of a handful of ‘80s hits smoothly interpolated into Sheik’s score) before disappearing to re-emerge first in a plastic raincoat and then carrying an ax. It’s only slightly disconcerting that the audience is cheering those entrances. But when a plexiglass wall descends downstage to catch the spray, you know it’s going to get ugly.
Walker plays Patrick as simultaneously at the center of his social/professional circle and standing outside it, looking in with disgust. He’s flanked by incisive characterizations from Helene Yorke, hilarious as Patrick’s aggressively superficial fiancée Evelyn; and Morgan Weed, deliciously empty as Evelyn’s best friend and Patrick’s mistress, Courtney. On the bro side, there’s oily Timothy Price (Theo Stockman) and obscenely confident Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein), preening creeps so high on their sense of superiority they’re practically begging to be mutilated; and Luis Carruthers (Jordan Dean), Courtney’s closeted official boyfriend, who misreads a signal from Patrick as a romantic overture.
Alice Ripley (a Tony winner for Next to Normal) can’t do much with the role of Patrick’s medicated mother, who’s absent even when she’s present, and her second-act song tenderly recalling her son as a boy adds little. But Jennifer Damiano finds poignancy in the good-girl part of Patrick’s smitten secretary Jean, even in the faintly ridiculous situation of looking longingly at her boss with Evelyn across the theater during a performance of Les Miserables. (While the dialogue is littered with references to ‘80s artifacts, it’s the frequent mentions of Les Miz and Donald Trump, relics that are still with us for better or worse, that draw the biggest laughs.) Damiano also gets one of Sheik’s more haunting songs with “A Girl Before,” a moody synth-driven soliloquy that precedes the declaration of her feelings for Patrick.
Compared to the blow-by-blow descriptions of the novel and movie, the show’s murder count is much reduced, the bulk of it happening in a darkly stylized ensemble number (very Eyes of Laura Mars) called “I Am Back.” Striking animalistic dance poses amid all the signature ‘80s moves (Lynne Page did the fabulous retro choreography), Patrick dispatches countless victims. Those include two zoned-out hookers unwisely returning after an earlier three-way (Ericka Hunter and Holly James) and a disco dance floor full of yuppies with Barneys shopping bags for heads. (The appearance of a chainsaw, meat cleaver and semi-automatic during this number all elicit more roars from the audience.)
The trouble with having pulled off such an exhilarating first act, buoyed along by the wicked savagery of its pitch-black comedy, is the probably inevitable dip in energy when Patrick’s growing alienation starts intruding on his egomaniacal self-satisfaction. One of Walker’s strongest scenes is the monologue in which he confesses to the detective investigating Paul’s disappearance (Keith Randolph Smith). But having recalibrated the mood, Goold and Aguirre-Sacasa make the mistake of lurching back into heartless hedonism with a club scene set to Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” which deflates the tension. The point is to show there’s no escape from the life Patrick has bought into, a grim reality spelled out in the closing song, “This Is Not an Exit.” But the material lends itself better to abstraction than explication.
Still, even with its flaws, the musical is a bloody good time. I would buy tickets just to watch Walker stalk the stage in a guts-spattered raincoat, his eyes drilling into latecomers returning from intermission to let them know they could be next.
Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York
Cast: Benjamin Walker, Helene Yorke, Jennifer Damiano, Drew Moerlein, Alice Ripley, Krystina Alabado, Dave Thomas Brown, Jordan Dean, Anna Eilinsfeld, Jason Hite, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Keith Randolph Smith, Theo Stockman, Alex Michael Stoll, Morgan Weed
Director: Rupert Goold
Book: Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis
Music & lyrics: Duncan Sheik
Set designer: Es Devlin
Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer: Justin Townsend
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier
Video designer: Finn Ross
Music director: Jason Hart
Orchestrations: Duncan Sheik
Music supervisor & vocal arranger: David Shrubsole
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Executive producers: Foresight Theatrical, Allan Williams
Produced by Almeida Theatre, Headlong
Presented by David Johnson and Jesse Singer for Act 4 Entertainment, Jeffrey Richards, Will Trice, Rebecca Gold, Greenleaf Productions, John Frost/Clip Service, Trevor Fetter, Joanna Carson, Gordon Meli Partners, Nora Ariffin, Jam Theatricals, Almeida Theatre, Center Theatre Group, R&D Theatricals, Paula & Stephen Reynolds, The Shubert Organization, in cooperation with Edward R. Pressman
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