American Psycho review – Patrick Bateman sings, strips and slashes

The Wall Street maniac rides again in a musical rich in synth pop and buff bodies, but the meaning of the original novel slides off the slick surroundings

Has there ever been an axe murderer handsomer than Patrick Bateman? Certainly that allure helps to explain the perverse, mordant appeal of American Psycho, Bret Easton Elliss boundary-ramming satire of 80s excess, adapted as a cult movie in 2000 and now appearing as a Broadway musical after an earlier run at the Almeida Theatre in London. A bold and perilous artistic endeavor, this musical is also something of a tonal muddle, approaching the material from myriad angles some serious, some sleazy, some nice, some nasty which dont ultimately form a persuasive whole.

For many in the audience, this will not matter. American Psycho already has its seat in the pop culture pantheon. You can find T-shirts and dolls devoted to Bateman, a muscled specialist in mergers and acquisitions (or, as he prefers it, murders and executions) who likes to dissect girls in his spare time. Much of the crowd at a preview performance seemed ecstatic to see a favorite character enfleshed, especially when that flesh is as ripped as that of Benjamin Walker, the often shirtless Broadway leading man here playing Bateman. In the plays opening moments, in which a victim attempts to escape Batemans clutches, there were hoots, applause, and delighted screams like those that greet a midnight movie. After the show, which concludes on a note of nihilistic despair, groups of banker-ish young men were pausing to take grinning selfies in front of the theatres marquee.

As adapted by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, scored by Duncan Sheik, and directed by Rupert Goold, this is an inarguably stylish undertaking and sometimes an exciting one. The set, by Es Devlin, with its white, deliberately narrowed walls and dropped ceiling gives a necessary feeling of claustrophobia. The costumes, by Katrina Lindsay, both celebrate and satirize 80s style, as does Duncan Sheiks somewhat rigid synth pop score. If this seems a little empty, well, thats part of the style and the content, too. Bateman feels only absence where a soul ought to reside. I am not here, I am not there, he sings. I am nobody, I am nowhere.

Bateman: seductiveness, playfulness, and terrible vacancy. Photograph: Jeremy Daniel

Often the production delights, in ways camp and comedic, in the ugly extravagance of the period. There are some good jokes about art and politics, lifted almost verbatim from the novel. A song and several reprises namecheck period fashion. This includes the delicious couplet: No, theres nothing remotely ironic/ About our love of Manolo Blahnik. And 25 years on, theres still something pleasurable in Elliss insistence that attractive, successful masters of the universe are all more and less deranged. (This is a musical that both a Donald Trump and a Bernie Sanders could love. And hate.)

But the piece has more somber concerns, too. In several songs such as the excellent opener Selling Out and the later Not a Common Man Patrick attempts to discover a relationship between his own psychosis and the madness in the world around him. Theres an existential gravity to these songs, but sincere numbers by other characters such as Nice Thought, sung by Batemans mother (Alice Ripley), and A Girl Before, sung by his secretary (Jennifer Damiano) simply slow the action.

Walker, looking like a brilliantined Ken Doll, gives another galvanic turn, communicating the seductiveness, playfulness, and terrible vacancy that define Bateman. Otherwise, the actors who fare the best are those who take the most broadly parodic approach, like Helne York (redeeming herself after a wretched turn in Bullets over Broadway) as Batemans appetitive girlfriend and Stockman as his sneering colleague.

So is this satire or psychodrama, monstrous comedy or moral horror? Its all and its nothing, too. The production flirts with darkness, but theres little consummation. The glut of murders depicted in I am Back is too stylized to arouse any real terror. Its the same with the sex scenes. The novel dared to encompass the actively banal, the queasily erotic, and the outrageously grotesque regions the musical avoids. Which is in many ways a good thing. Most of us will sleep better never having seen a rat disporting itself in a dying womans entrails while a synthesizer plays.

Still, the result is oddly evanescent, so sleek and gym-toned that any real stab at meaning or consequence slides off and away. Yet even this is anticipated in the lyrics. As Bateman intones in the finale, Maybe youve been slaughtered, maybe youve been kissed/ Either way means nothing, I simply dont exist.

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