By Kathleen Campion
Given the rafts of talent signed on to this project, it would have been a huge surprise if there were not a great deal to admire in the production—and there is. Rupert Goold directs the musical version of Bret Easton Ellis’ novel built on Duncan Sheik’s music and lyrics and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s book.
Goold and Sheik had a lot to overcome in the sense that the controversial book and film that preceded this production triggered the question: why would anyone make a musical out of that?
It takes some artful dodging to bring an audience to feel any connection with the anti-hero of the piece, Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker). He’s the embodiment of the overcompensated twenty-something investment banker we first met in the late 1980s, awash in coke and entitlement.
He is also a serial killer who staples young women to the floor to do worse. The victims, friends or strangers-for-hire, are just more of the commodities he consumes. Bateman has none of Sweeney Todd’s outrage to justify his wanton violence. He’s—well, he’s a psycho.
You may remember Walker as a more engaging, if also bloody, Andrew Jackson (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson). He sings and dances, struts and strips with distinction and precision. He is a marvel to watch.
In act one, he brags about the toys (his Sony 30-inch TV, his red Walkman), and the art on his wall, and his expensive wardrobe. He is clearly relying on his things to confirm his worth. The fact that they are passé to a 2016 audience draws titters as do all the dated references to the cool clubs (like Tunnel, where he snorts coke), and to his ritual of ordering absurdly intricate food at the restaurant of the moment (where you have to know the maitre d’ to get in.
The set is washed in the grey-blue light of a 1980s tv screen left on in an empty room. The stage is framed in an electronic margin that artfully fills with graphics and antic lights, messages, color changes, and tricks of depth perception. Inevitably, the black and white and grey are liberally splashed with blood.
On a sensual level, the first act of this flashy, noisy, throbbing show is relentless—shocking the senses, and leaving you wanting more. The choreography can be mesmerizing on the one hand, and almost too clever on the other. For example, there are several references to Les Mis early in the script; before intermission one of the dance numbers resolves in an arty 1815 French tableau. Later, slashing and shooting are incorporated into dance numbers; bodies fall and twitch but all in a unified piece.
The union of light and sound and movement in the iconic electronic blur of the late 1980s is powerful. It underscores the notion that the “moral” of the story is in the empty narcissism of the era. But, all of that artistry, while attractive and stimulating, overpromises, as there is no satisfying payoff.
Did self-absorption create a man so lacking in empathy that he murders profligately without remorse? Is he devil driven? Is he an anomaly that cannot be explained? Frankly, the last scene, the big finale, while beautifully executed, falls flat, as it is devoid of meaning.
American Psycho has more than second-act problems; it has what’s-the-point problems. Bateman’s last speech all but disclaims the preceding action. Did he kill or just fantasize? Is all the action internal monologue? Are we engaged in pure solipsism? (He actually asks that questions so I looked it up for us. Solipsism is the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.)
You walk out shaking your head; what does all this come to?
American Psycho – Music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik; Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; Directed by Rupert Goold
With: Benjamin Walker (Patrick Bateman), Heléne Yorke (Evelyn Williams), Jennifer Damiano (Jean), Drew Moerlein (Paul Owen), Krystina Alabado (Vanden), Dave Thomas Brown (David Van Patten), Jordan Dean (Luis Carruthers), Anna Eilinsfeld (Victoria), Jason Hite (Sean Bateman), Ericka Hunter (Video Store Clerk/Sabrina), Holly James (Hardbody Waitress/Hardbody Trainer/Christine), Keith Randolph Smith (Al/Detective Donald Kimball), Theo Stockman (Timothy Price), Alex Michael Stoll (ATM/Craig McDermott/Tom Cruise) and Alice Ripley (Svetlana/Mrs. Bateman/Mrs. Wolfe).
Choreography by Lynne Page; sets by Es Devlin; costumes by Katrina Lindsay; lighting by Justin Townsend; sound by Dan Moses Schreier; video by Finn Ross; music coordinator, John Miller; associate director, Whitney Mosery; associate choreographer, Rebecca Howell; company manager, Daniel Hoyos; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin; technical supervisor, Hudson Theatrical Associates; executive producer, Foresight Theatrical/Allan Williams; associate producers, Carlos Arana, Jimmy and Sara Hendricks Batcheller, CTM Productions, Stella La Rue, Nate Bolotin and James Forbes Sheehan; orchestrations by Mr. Sheik; music supervisor/vocal arranger, David Shrubsole; music director, Jason Hart; hair, wigs and makeup by Campbell Young Associates. An Almeida and Headlong production, presented by David Johnson and Jesse Singer for Act 4 Entertainment, Jeffrey Richards, Will Trice, Rebecca Gold, Greenleaf Productions, John Frost, Trevor Fetter, Joanna Carson, Gordon Meli Partners, Clip Service/A.C. Orange International, Nora Ariffin, Jam Theatricals, Almeida Theater, Center Theater Group, Paula and Stephen Reynolds, J. Todd Harris and the Shubert Organization, in cooperation with Edward R. Pressman. At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 West 45th Street, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, americanpsychobroadway.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.