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A CurtainUp Review
By Charles Wright
Over time, American Psycho has become a staple of contemporary American literary fiction and it was made into a movie by Mary Harron in 2000. It's about Patrick Bateman, a 27-year-old graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Business School, who works on Wall Street during the day and prowls both fashionable and demi-monde Manhattan by night. Bateman's Jekyll-Hyde existence involves socializing with other young men and women of privilege in restaurants and nightclubs, while seeking ever more innovative (and gruesome) ways to commit murder and dispose of mangled corpses.
A musical adaptation of American Psycho has arrived on Broadway from London, where it was produced by the Headlong Theatre Company at the Almeida in Islington. In London, with Matt Smith (formerly television's Dr. Who) as Bateman, the show aroused considerable interest but didn't find overwhelming critical or commercial success.
Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (book) and Duncan Sheik (music and lyrics), the musical American Psycho conjures the fads, brands, gadgets, fashions, and political concerns of New York City in the era of Mayor Koch. The workmanlike script and lyrics evoke the aspirations and anxieties of Reaganite America with references to Donald Trump, the AIDS epidemic, and the biggest Broadway sensation of the day, Les Miserables. Sheik's pleasant though bland musical score replicates effectively the rhythms and moods of pop hits of the day and samples themes from Phil Collins, Huey Lewis and the News, and Tears for Fears, among others.
Bateman is Benjamin Walker, who was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson off and on Broadway and appeared as Brick Pollitt opposite Scarlett Johansson in the 2013 revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (On screen he was honest Abe in Abraham Lincoln: Zombie Hunter).
Walker has a splendid singing voice and admirable stage technique. He was a high-testosterone Andy Jackson; and, as Brick, he conveyed a tempest of neurotic energy underneath a lethargic facade. In theory, Walker's regular-guy appeal, formidable stage presence, and experience portraying neurotics are ideal qualifications for the role of Bateman. As yet, however, the key to this character's psychology (far bloodier, or at least more gratuitously so, than Andy Jackson's) has eluded him. Whether in smart business suits or stripped to his briefs (as he is for large parts of the show), Walker's Bateman is a robotic Ken doll, unquestionably psycho but devoid of the menacing quality that would make credible Ellis's tall tale of urban horror.
Lacking the acute sense of danger that effective horror stories must have, the musicalized American Psycho relies for thrills on the Grand Guignol pleasures of its top-flight design team. Scenic designer Es Devlin provides a wide, unbroken playing space that permits director Rupert Goold and choreographer Lynne Page to keep the action swift and fluid. The pale hues and simple, moveable back-panels of Devlin's set constitute an ideal environment in which her fellow designers — particularly Justin Townsend (lighting), Finn Ross (video), and Katrina Lindsay (costumes) — create atmosphere, spectacle and surprise.
To a 2016 sensibility, the critical and commercial dust-up occasioned by Ellis's novel 25 years ago seems quaint. Recent massacres at American schools, shopping malls, and movie theaters (as well as in Paris and Brussels) make the bloodlettings in American Psycho imaginable if not comprehensible. Contemporary audiences, accustomed to the irony that now saturates media discourse, are more likely than late 20th century readers to grasp the satiric impulse behind Bateman's horrifying and genuinely funny story.
Walker is supported by 15 talented musical-theater artists, most of whom deserve Bateman's favorite accolade — "hardbodies." Helene York and Jennifer Damiano, the former racy and the latter demure, are stand-outs as the love interests of the unloving and unlovable Bateman. Jordan Dean (as Luis Carruthers) embodies cartoonish sexual confusion with a touch of farce, pursuing Courtney (Morgan Weed) in public and clumsily putting the moves on Bateman when he thinks no one's looking. Broadway favorite Alice Ripley is in good voice but under-utilized in three ancillary roles, the most significant being Bateman's mother.
American Psycho offers special-effect beheadings and other acts of mayhem that have remarkable verisimilitude. Devlin captures the chaotic spirit of Bateman's existence with gallons of stage blood that fly toward the audience before spattering on the translucent curtain at the front of the playing area. That bloody explosion is intensely theatrical, but this anemic new musical adds little, if anything, that's noteworthy to what Brett Easton Ellis said 25 years ago.