American Psycho: Theater Review

Hugh Skinner and Matt Smith in "American Psycho"
Nightmare on Wall Street.

"Doctor Who" star Matt Smith makes his stage musical debut as the demon banker of Wall Street in this glitzy disco remix of Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious 1991 cult novel.

LONDON -- Twenty years ago, the notion of a stage musical based on Bret Easton Ellis' cult shock-lit novel American Psycho would have sounded like a tasteless satirical joke. But skip forward two decades and this million-selling portrait of Patrick Bateman, arrogant Wall Street broker by day and sexually deranged serial killer by night, is part of the literary canon. It also feels more attuned to our post-modern age of Tarantino-esque ironic violence and torture-porn slasher movies.

But director Rupert Goold’s glitzy new London stage adaptation almost glosses over the book’s notoriously graphic carnage altogether, aiming instead for a darkly funny tone that plays at times like a light-headed, razzle-dazzle social satire. A little lacking in focus, it feels more like a series of splashy set-pieces than a serious literary adaptation. But it's nonetheless an impressive, immersive spectacle. Already sold out for the duration of its run through February, American Psycho seems virtually guaranteed a West End transfer. And for such an iconic New York story, of course, Broadway would be its natural home.

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Riding the crest of the BBC's globally popular Doctor Who as his stint in the role ends this month, Matt Smith makes his stage musical debut as Bateman. The 31-year-old Smith's chiseled, sunken-eyed, slightly Neanderthal good looks suit the character's mix of suave surface charm and zoned-out, cold-blooded blankness. Likewise his ripped physique, which he bares in several scenes, including his dramatic opening ascent through the stage floor on a tanning bed. His American accent is better than most Brits, comfortable enough not to draw attention to itself. Smith also proves a decent singer, although he's clearly more at ease with old-school crooner numbers than the show’s dominant electro-pop style.

Goold, the Almeida’s artistic director, is already much garlanded for his work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, English National Opera and Chichester Festival. The book is by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose stage and screen credits include Glee, the recent Carrie remake, and the ill-starred Broadway spectacular Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, on which he was brought in for rewrites.

The director and writer paint Bateman in more sympathetic terms than the novel. He's a savage narcissist and unreliable narrator, but also a fragile mummy’s boy and powerless victim of late 20th century capitalism, adrift in a cruel universe he will never understand. Sweeney Todd in Armani and Ray-Ban shades.

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In the first half, Aguirre-Sacasa favors camp comedy and gossipy period detail. Tom Cruise even makes a jokey, grinning cameo. Bateman begins the story surrounded by pompous Wall Street rivals and clucking women, with Susannah Fielding and Cassandra Compton both doing excellent work as his diva-ish fiancee Evelyn and adoring secretary Jean, respectively.

These early scenes are lively, but they almost reduce the nominal anti-hero to minor player in an ensemble piece. Between cocaine-fueled visits to hip nightclubs, upscale restaurants and orgiastic parties, Bateman barely even finds time to kill two people. The tone during this first hour veers dangerously close to Absolutely Fabulous or Sex and the City. Once a Glee writer, always a Glee writer.

It's hard nowadays to imagine the intense anger that American Psycho first aroused in 1991. Attacked by feminists and literary critics for its forensic descriptions of violence, mostly against women, it was disowned and pulped by its original publisher. Film director Mary Harron helped detoxify the novel’s reputation with her carefully calibrated big-screen adaptation in 2000, which foregrounded the book’s darkly satirical humor and anti-misogynist, anti-materialist message. Christian Bale’s smirking performance turned a reviled folk devil into an urbane metrosexual playboy. From Bateman to Batman was not such a great leap.

Goold and Aguirre-Sacasa approach the thorny subject of Bateman’s brutality by stylizing and minimizing it. He murders more men than women in this adaptation, mainly in non-naturalistic, hallucinatory scenes, the most memorable of them a trigger-happy massacre on a disco dance floor. A nail gun and a chainsaw both make fleeting appearances, but only as props. The obsessive sadism of the novel and the comic-book gore of the movie are both absent. This editorial timidity arguably errs on the side of toothless good taste, but also invites us to consider the story’s other charms, especially as a comic period piece.

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The score is by singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, whose stage work includes the 2006 transatlantic hit rock musical Spring Awakening, which won him a Grammy and two Tony Awards. His reference points here are mostly the more sardonic, ironic end of 1980s electro-pop, specifically Madonna and Pet Shop Boys. But he also sneaks a few more traditional styles into the mix, allowing Smith to show off his Rat Pack moves on the surprisingly tender bossa nova ballad "End of an Island."

Sheik also shoehorns full-cast choral arrangements of 1980s pop classics by the likes of Phil Collins, New Order and Human League into the action, sometimes to sublime effect. Sadly, Bateman’s long discourses about his amusingly awful music taste, one of the book’s most inspired satirical motifs, are almost entirely absent from this adaptation. But an echo survives in one of the strongest scenes, a blood-splattered ax murder played out to the vintage Huey Lewis hit "Hip To Be Square."

The set is simple but striking, a multipurpose geometric space that serves as various apartments, a video store, a nightclub, a gym, a restaurant, an office, several streets and even a beach. It was designed by Es Devlin, who balances extensive work in theater and opera with lavish stage shows for pop superstars including Jay Z, Lady Gaga and Pet Shop Boys. She also designed the closing ceremony of last year’s London Olympics.

There are certainly traces of Devlin’s Pet Shop Boys work in some of the set-pieces here, most obviously a musical number in which the dancers have Bloomingdale's shopping bags instead of heads. Lynne Page’s choreography also merits a mention, with its clever use of slow-motion and freeze-frame tableaux.

American Psycho ends with an audacious romantic twist not in the original book -- albeit romance tempered with heavy irony. Smith’s rousing final number, "This Is Not an Exit," warns us that his story is not an allegory, a fable or a cautionary tale. Well, OK then. But Sheik, Goold and Aguirre-Sacasa might have given us a sharper take-home message than this evasive non-message. Did they perhaps intend some kind of topical commentary on the current climate of Wall Street villainy? If so, then it's disappointingly opaque. All the same, there is much to savor in this sense-swamping, talent-rich adaptation. Yesterday's controversial cult novel becomes today's all-singing, all-dancing crowd-pleaser.

Venue: Almeida Theater, London (runs through Feb. 1)

Cast: Matt Smith, Cassandra Compton, Ben Aldridge, Susannah Fielding, Jonathan Bailey, Katie Brayben, Charlie Anson, Holly James, Lucie Jones, Holly Dale Spencer, Simon Gregor, Tom Kay, Gillian Kirkpatrick, Eugene McCoy, Hugh Skinner

Director: Rupert Goold

Book: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis

Music and lyrics: Duncan Sheik

Set designer: Es Devlin

Costume designer: Katrina Lindsay

Lighting designer: Jon Clark

Sound designer: Paul Arditti

Video designer: Finn Ross

Choreographer: Lynne Page

Music director: David Shrubsole

Presented by Almeida Theater, Headlong, in association with David Johnson and Jesse Singer for Act 4 Entertainment, by special arrangement with Edward R. Pressman