Ever since Leo Bloom first walked into Max Bialystock’s office by way of the St. James Theatre, Broadway has been in a love-hate relationship with Hollywood transfer projects. The industry has often romanced the financial incentives of such re-imaginings (even if they don’t lend themselves as readily to song-and-dance numbers like The Producers did), but creatively you’d have to be as mad as Patrick Bateman to like many of the results. Perhaps that is why American Psycho becoming a musical seems both inevitable and fitting. Yet, much like the glossy veneer of a WASPy stock broker with capped teeth, looks can be deceptive—hiding a hilariously tortured and seductive soul with a penchant for Huey Lewis and the News.
So it is with director Rupert Goold and composer Duncan Sheik’s American Psycho, which opened last night at the Schoenfeld Theatre. Pulling as liberally from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel that spawned all this blue blood mayhem 25 years ago, the creative team has merged literary and cinematic influences into an unapologetically baroque spectacle of blood, ego, and ‘80s glitz. It is all so intentionally and overwhelmingly gaudy that, like the classified section covering up the carpet, the noticeable flaws can be papered over before they spill out and leave a lasting stain to the night’s entertainment.
In this context, Benjamin Walker’s Patrick Bateman cuts an imposing figure on the boards, as he should when all six feet and three inches of his sculpted physique spends half the show bare save for the buckets of lathered-on blood. The definition of a vain narcissist, Bateman introduces himself to the audience by bragging, “Whenever I shower—sometimes twice, sometimes three times a day—I use a honey-almond wash on my ripped body, and moisturizer and anti-aging eye balm before I shave—with a razor and cream by Pour Hommes.”
Residing in an apartment that screams nouveau douchebaggery circa 1989, Patrick Bateman is the poster boy for his insulated culture of vapid excess and bottomless greed. But Patrick, much like previous versions of the character, is also a psychotic sociopath with a bloodlust that surpasses all other vices that drive his id (for which there are legion). Thus when the show opens with him sulking during his 27th birthday because he learned his rival Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein) has a better business card… well what sex and cocaine can’t fix, the slaughter of a random homeless person will surely rectify.
Something of an abstract character study about Patrick and the nightmarish world of grotesque glam that surrounds him, from his Upper East Side apartment to his Wall Street office, and even to the doldrums of the Hamptons, American Psycho is less about telling the story of a monster than reveling in the culture that birthed and still enables his kind to this day.
This is also where American Psycho most readily excels. As a monument to the kind of shallowness that served as its own golden calf in the waning days of the Reagan Years, American Psycho taps most precisely into the “American” half of its title, and, more exact still, into its new New York home. Indeed, director Rupert Goold has transferred this production from a previous 2013 London version of the show to the Great White Way, but there was apparently a variety of changes made to the production in the process.
Last year, Goold’s other recent West End success, King Charles III, also hopped the pond to become the toast of Broadway during Christmastime. But whereas that admittedly flawless production changed little (including the actors) for its American debut, American Psycho probably needed the tinkering as it looks to lacerate an American aristocracy as thoroughly as King Charles III decapitated the royals’ legacy (complete with Bateman now repeatedly boasting about his love for Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal).
Hence, Psycho being a marvel of stagecraft and atmosphere. Es Devlin, who masterminded the scenic design, as well as costume designer Katrina Lindsay and lighting designer Justin Townsend, complement Goold’s aesthetic choices of ‘80s garishness with Act One being nigh monochromatic in each scene of either black, white, or a particularly demonic looking blood-red Christmas tree. In Act Two, they indulge other visual absurdities, particularly for a musical number in the Hamptons where everyone who isn’t dead yet gets to show off almost as much skin as Mr. Walker, but it all is to an intentionally repellent purpose.
As the central anchor, Walker deserves equal credit for making the character of Patrick Bateman his own. More earnest and desperate in his desire to control his mania than Christian Bale’s chillier big screen alternative, Walker’s theatrical creation is a stranger in a strange land, who so rarely understands the customs of the opulent morons around him that he cannot be entirely blamed for wanting to see what their insides look like. Like his sweaty Andrew Jackson, Walker’s Patrick is an American hero trying to make the world a better place—often with an axe.
And in fact, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s entire book is a sharply adapted affair, proving not only can American Psycho work for the stage, but that this medium has virtues that eluded the film. Apparently returning to Ellis’ prose, the structure of Psycho’s first act is as tightly wound as piano wire while the show becomes something of an ensemble piece. Nobody is able to really dominate the stage the way that Walker’s character does—he is after all in nearly every scene—but Heléne Yorke comes close as Patrick’s eternally self-obsessed fiancée, Evelyn. Indeed, Yorke gets one of the two original music highlights of the night with “You Are What You Wear,” an ode to the vinyl-thin glories of Armani, Chanel, and every other brand she and fellow Stepford Courtney (Morgan Weed) worship.
Unfortunately, the structural momentum of Act One, which is built around a certain “Hip To Be Square” themed murder that fans should be anticipating, hits a wall in Act Two. But more problematically, while American Psycho proves the material lends itself to the stage, it does not necessarily validate the idea of the story being a musical.
To be fair, there are a number of sung highlights throughout the show—but most of them are in relation to reworking famously vacuous ‘80s pop tunes like Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” a rollicking rendition of The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me,” and a surprisingly haunting cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” which preludes several of Patrick’s murders. Each of these numbers tap into Bateman’s oblivious white bread snobbery where he mistakes popular commercialism for illuminating art, and indeed every one of these ditties is given a reverent bow worthy of Patrick’s preference for junk culture (which will make some theater fans especially wince when the show repeatedly brings up Bateman’s obsession for a certain “new” Broadway sensation, Les Misérables).
However, the actual new music and lyrics written by Duncan Sheik lack much more depth or emotional resonance for these characters than any of the other vintage Top 40 music that’s present, and it will have an even more diminished effect on the audience since little of it actually tickles the memory or the heartstrings. Ultimately, it becomes a sonic wall of ‘80s overload and noise, every bit as homogenous as the rest of Patrick’s tastes.
Yet, there is one notable exception in the show’s “eleven o’clock number.” Starved from his bloodletting and severely pissed off after a week in the country, Patrick flies home for a showstopper entitled “I Am Back.” Returned to his old haunts in Manhattan, the body count quickly reaches astronomical proportions when the ensemble is not asked to dance in a chorus line, but rather to play the corpses and victims-to-be who do not yet know they’re dead. Rather than beautifully high-flying legs, we are left with an asymmetrical pile of naked flesh where the women twitch into oblivion, speaking and singing their lines from presumable minutes before their grisly demises. The thin line between life and death is blurred in a bitingly choreographed musical moment while the background whites give way to an endless stream of red (including on Walker’s hands, which will not vanish even after the final curtain).
It is a grueling and queasy scene that carves its way under your skin in the same vein that Sweeney Todd did (an obvious influence with even Psycho’s screeching start echoing the original Harold Prince production). It is the musical highlight of the show, as well as a signifier that the story could have completely worked as musical songbook if it had gotten into your into your head only earlier. Instead, the music mostly plays on synth nostalgia for kitschy soundscape relics.
Nevertheless, American Psycho still mostly sticks its adult-friendly target. Presenting theatergoers and tourists alike with a familiar property that is decidedly not for the whole family, the production is an amusing visual gutting of the one percent of the one percent. With a talented ensemble that is more than game for the onstage, disrobed bloodbath to come, it’s a show that will likely entice its audience with a to-die-for lifestyle and plenty of hummable musical numbers, albeit of the jukebox variety.