American Psycho Broadway review: A perversely enjoyable experience
Did he or didn’t he? That’s the question at the soulless heart of American Psycho, the book, movie, and, now, Broadway musical centered on everyone’s favorite fictional ax-wielding ’80s antihero, Patrick Bateman (played by Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson’s Benjamin Walker, staggeringly good). Did Bateman — mild-mannered Wall Street douchebag by day, blood-thirsty serial killer by night — actually slice and dice that homeless guy, those hookers, that pretentious fellow banker? Or are the grisly acts simply a product of Bateman’s overstimulated, coke-addled imagination?
You won’t get any answers from AP the musical; as in Bret Easton Ellis’ then-reviled, now-admired 1991 novel — to which the stage version is remarkably faithful, right down to the logo — it’s up to you to decide. (Mary Harron’s 2000 Christian Bale-starring movie, perhaps in an effort to make the gruesome bits more palatable, landed more squarely in the fantasy camp.)
If you can resign yourself to the story’s innate ambiguity, you’re in for a perversely enjoyable experience. The script, by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa — whose credits range from Off Broadway dramas to HBO’s Looking to Archie Comics to Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark reboot — captures, and deftly skewers, all of Patrick Bateman’s and the 1980s’ most over-the-top obsessions: nouvelle cuisine (“venison with yogurt sauce,” “gravlax pot pie with green tomatillo slaw,” “sashimi with goat cheese”); the quest for the perfect perma-tan (the musical opens with Walker stripped to his Ralph Lauren tighty-whities in a tanning bed); moneyed Manhattanites’ designer label mania (Duncan Sheik’s name-dropping “You Are What You Wear” number cleverly crams in at least 20 brands); and, of course, aerobics (five guys in headbands and tube socks hypnotically drool over a leotard- and legwarmer-clad “hardbody” in a scene straight out of the 1985 Jamie Lee Curtis–John Travolta camp-fest Perfect).
The music is totally ’80s as well: Sheik’s bizarrely catchy, entirely electronic score — far from the usual Broadway fare — plays like something that could have been blaring at Tunnel (or any other club) in 1989. If you grew up grooving to the synth-pop sounds of New Order and Depeche Mode, this is your jam. A few iconic decade-appropriate tunes — including a stunningly creepy cover of “In the Air Tonight” — also reassuringly pop up here and there. Points for using the recording of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square,” and for Walker’s wonderfully silly dance moves. (Was that a moonwalk?) “The song’s so damn catchy, most people don’t realize it’s a rollicking ode to conformity and the importance of trends,” Patrick explains to the unsuspecting Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein) before a clear protective plastic curtain descends.
Since its 2013 premiere at London’s Almeida Theatre with erstwhile Doctor Who star Matt Smith as the titular psycho, AP has gotten a lot bloodier. It’s also gotten a lot slicker, sharper, faster, and funnier. The women — especially Patrick’s girlfriend, Evelyn (Heléne Yorke) and her lithium-numbed sidekick Courtney (a brilliantly bubble-headed Morgan Weed) — are still purposely insufferable, but they’re actually eye-rollingly entertaining too. Less amusing, by design, are Patrick’s secretary, Jean (Next to Normal’s Jennifer Damiano), haplessly and hopelessly in love with him, and his mother (Tony-winner Alice Ripley); of course, not everyone needs to be taken apart — figuratively speaking — but these two sincere characters seem out of place in such a stinging satire.
One of the original charges against American Psycho was that it was misogynistic; indeed, the book does contain astoundingly graphic descriptions of Bateman’s despicable treatment of women — dismemberment, cannibalism, necrophilia. (To be fair, all of the violence composes an incredibly small part of the actual novel; most of the text is devoted to Bateman’s accounts of what designers he and his co-workers are wearing, what chi chi food they’re eating, and what music he’s listening to.) That’s certainly not something of which you can accuse the musical.
And as for the violence — it’s simply part of the story, usually a joke, and often part of a stunning stage picture. All that red blood looks spectacular against Es Devlin’s stark white set. Have we become so desensitized, in a post-Dexter, American Horror Story age, that multiple on-stage murders elicit nary a cringe? Or are we that certain that everything we’re seeing is happening in Patrick’s head?
Again, it’s up to you to decide. B+
American Psycho (Musical)