by Samuel L. Leiter
Patrick Bateman is back. Perhaps you remember him as the narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s provocative 1991 novel, American Psycho, and the equally notorious 2000 film, starring Christian Bale. Bateman’s a 26-year-old, homophobic, misogynistic, sexually carnivorous, materialistic, narcissistic, anti-Semitic, greedy, perfectly attired, brand name-obsessed, sadistic Wall Street investment banker who also happens to be a serial killer. He has a particular taste for stabbing, slicing, eviscerating, dismembering, and decapitating hot young women, with whose gory remains he may copulate before disposing of them in some disgusting way, including digestively.
The evil Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker, stardom-bound) may not be your typical Broadway hero but his tale, an icily satiric attack on the soulless superficiality and selfishness of American consumer culture during the Wall Street boom of the late 1980s (what’s past is present), has been made into a high-tech, rock musical (following a hit 2013 London production) by book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark) and composer/lyricist Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). Its strikingly cool staging is by Rupert Goold (King Charles III).
Aguirre-Sacasa’s book hews faithfully to Easton’s novel while making numerous cuts, changes, and additions. Major scenes are reimagined for dance, like “Cards,” a number in which Bateman and his vapid friends compare the relative quality of their business cards; others, like the big police chase scene, are banished. The Les Misérables and homeless people material remain to remind us of the one percent’s disdain for the down and out. Bastard that he is, however, this American psycho nevertheless gains a thimbleful of sympathy; Easton’s ambiguous “did he or didn’t he actually do it” door remains open, the author’s own claims to the contrary.
Easton’s readers will be anxious to know how a Broadway musical could possibly express the novel’s nauseatingly precise scenes of violence and hyper-pornography; like the movie, the staging (albeit differently) lets the audience imagine much of it. Oceans of blood may be splashed (a scrim to protect the first rows drops before Paul Owen [Drew Moerlein] is axed open) and Patrick may get it on with a pair of bimbos but everything’s necessarily been aestheticized. During his ménage à trois (or quatre, since a stuffed animal’s involved), childlike sex cartoons, like those on bathroom walls, are seen, rendering them harmless, even amusing. Nudity is eschewed in favor of underwear; in fact, the impressively buff Walker spends lots of time in expensive skivvies.
As appropriate in a work emphasizing depersonalization—people are always mistaking one person for another—only Bateman has any dimensionality. One problem is the story’s essential plotlessness; we watch his insatiable appetites snowball as he seeks the trendiest restaurants and clubs, food and drink, clothes and accessories, as well as the hottest women, goriest splatter flicks (those videotapes he always has to return), hippest music (that Sony Walkman), and most potent drugs. Laughs abound, but often in response to the topical name dropping of once-popular places, like Tunnel, or now dated technology, like 30-inch TV sets. Easton’s book can be like reading a Sears Roebuck catalogue of 80s’ consumerism.
American Psycho is a narrative of escalation, the chief conflict being internal as Bateman wrestles with his guilt, thus necessitating his first-person narration; monotony sometimes looms. The other characters, like Bateman’s insipid businessman buddies or his rich bitch airhead bedmates, Evelyn (Helene Yorke) and Courtney (Morgan Weed), exist mainly as reflections of his own shallow values. Only Bateman’s shy, naïve, love-hungry secretary, Jean (Jennifer Damiano), garners sympathy, but she’s interesting only as the potential victim we want most not to be harmed. The talented Alice Ripley (Next to Normal) plays several older women, one being Bateman’s mother, but none are especially noteworthy.
Lynne Page’s choreography makes excellent use of the 80s’ electro-pop club music that informs much of Sheik’s beat-heavy score, fun to hear but little of it more than momentarily memorable; it’s supplemented, though, by infusions of actual 80s’ hits from Huey Lewis and the News, Phil Collins, New Order, Tears For Fears, and others. Es Devlin’s sleek, adaptable scenery, using two revolves, combines thrillingly with the incredible lighting effects of Justin Townsend and the kaleidoscopic, wall-blanketing video designs of Finn Ross. Katrina Lindsay’s costumes make 80s sartorial excess look good again.
Like Matt Smith, of TV’s “Dr. Who,” who won raves as London’s Patrick Bateman, Broadway’s Benjamin Walker walks the walk, talks the talk, looks the look, sings the songs, and dances the dances. Resistance to him, I’m afraid, is futile. This guy kills it.
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre
230 West 45th Street, NYC
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).