I never thought I’d have to say, “I can’t tonight. I have to see American Psycho the Musical.” But I have, and I did, although I still don’t know what to make of it.
Playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel, which was published in 1991, features a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music by Duncan Sheik, who penned the Tony-winning Spring Awakening, which also addressed repressed emotion and passion — although an extremely different kind.
The idea of setting to music a story of suppressed rage, gruesome murder and a bitingly sarcastic commentary on the greed and narcissism of the Me Decade was surprising and intriguing. But the result, directed by Rupert Goold, is a confusing combination of irony and sincerity, resulting in an unresolved atmosphere that left me wondering, “What did I just see?”
Let’s start with what the show got right. A charismatic and tightly controlled Benjamin Walker plays Patrick Bateman, the 26 year old man who working in mergers and acquisitions (or, as he call it, “murders and executions”), who focuses on maintaining his youth and beauty and is repulsed by the idea of aging or lack of success. Filled with disgust at the world around him, he laments that “Every pleasure is a bore” and relieves his boiling rage by committing violent murders. Yes, you read that right.
Patrick’s world is filled with people who embody everything he is repulsed by: his best friend (Theo Stockman), his fiancée (Helene Yorke), his fiancé’s friend and his secret lover (Morgan Weed) and his rival (Drew Moerlein). Obsessed with status and consumerism, they are vapid caricatures of people. While I don’t condone violence, it’s not hard to see why Patrick would want to escape from them in one way or another.
And this sympathy I felt for Patrick is exactly what left me so confused by this production. Played by the boyishly handsome and extremely fit Walker, he is presented as more of a confused antihero than a murderous sociopath. Walker gives a tightly controlled and disciplined performance with measured, clipped speaking and ritualistic, robotic dancing, depicting the seething rage that lurks just underneath Patrick’s carefully maintained and manicured surface. But the book and music also emphasize his lack of connection to the world and the fear and insecurity that plague this seemingly successful man. He is aware of how interchangeable he and his fellow yuppies are; at one point he laments, “No one would notice I was gone.”
Patrick’s secretary (Jennfier Daminao) and his mother (Alice Ripley) are seemingly the only two people who see this side of him. Daminao, whose lovely, haunting voice is not put to nearly enough use, is in love with her boss, and Ripley, another fierce talent who is wasted in this production, wistfully remembers when Patrick was just a child. Sadly, I must report that is about all their characters are given to do.
Juxtaposed with this sincerity about the sociopath is a level of sarcasm, poking fun at the stereotypes of the 1980s — videotapes, Walkmans, and ridiculous orders of food at the decadent, boozy lunches these yuppies were able to indulge in. And, knowing full well one cannot say the title American Psycho without thinking of business cards, there is a complete song-and-dance number titled “You’re Such a Card,” much to the audience’s delight.
This disjointed approach results in a confused product, and it’s unclear what exactly this musical is attempting to be. The narrative is literal at times and at others symbolic. Patrick is the narrator, and an unreliable one at that, so in some scenes he is interacting with his colleagues and peers in everyday while in others no one seems to notice that he’s walking around the stage wearing nothing but blood-splattered underwear and no one seems to notice.
Whether the story of American Psycho actually has happened, or whether it all takes place in Patrick’s mind is one of the great delights of the readers and viewers of its previous two incarnations. And the abrupt and inconclusive final scene and song are unsatisfying. Just like Patrick Bateman, I wanted something better and more of it.