Theater Review: Gore ’88! American Psycho Hacks Its Way Onstage

The American Psycho himself. Photo: JEREMY DANIEL/JEREMY DANIEL

Possibly the most sickening thing about the new musical American Psycho, aside from the fact that it exists on Broadway, is its transparent splash curtain, which even at the beginning of the show is smeared with the signs of recent squeegeeing. For all the simulated gore that follows — eruptions of blood are used almost like the “buttons” on traditional musical numbers as characters are hatcheted, knifed, and otherwise vivisected — it’s the streaky ghost of the previous night’s gore that, in its suggestiveness, makes the stomach sink. If only the creators of this ultimate “why” musical had paid any attention to the possibilities of that kind of subtlety, they might have come up with a bearable if not a justifiable evening. Alternatively, they could have made the curtain opaque and left it down.

As it is, only the point of the show is invisible. Everything else, including lots of ripped hardbodies in underwear, is on vulgar display, a notion lifted directly from its source, Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel. Supposedly a reaction to Reagan-era soullessness and ostentation, the book was more catalog than narrative. To characterize the antihero, a 27-year-old investment banker named Patrick Bateman, Ellis provided a stultifying inventory of his favorite brands of clothing and cosmetics, his preferred hot restaurants, music, and clubs. In place of action, he gave us a random series of grotesque killings, many involving exhaustively detailed acts of sexual violence against women. That these killings turned out (spoiler alert!) to be fantasies, the product of a mind numbed by excess, made the empty experience of the novel even emptier, its gratuitous violence having not only no actual plot purpose but no actual victim except the reader.

How a work so thoroughly and righteously trashed at the time nevertheless entered pop culture to the degree that someone thought it merited musicalization is hard to fathom. The 2000 movie starring Christian Bale certainly helped, playing the “action” for laughs and bathing some of Ellis’s tiresome gambits in a glamorizing spotlight. Everyone in the audience of the musical at a recent preview seemed to know its touchstones already: the cutthroat competition among the investment bankers over who has the classiest business cards, the raincoat Bateman dons before hacking his nemesis to death. (The raincoat even got entrance applause.) But what could the musical’s director (Rupert Goold) and authors (songs by Duncan Sheik, book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) have thought they were bringing to the musical form by applying it to this material, or to this material by squeezing it so sloppily into the tube of the musical form?

I say “sloppily” though the physical design, especially the interlocking sets and video by Es Devlin and Finn Ross, is as neat and tucked-in as a Turnbull & Asser poplin double-cuff contrast-collar shirt. Even the tighty-whities look pressed. But the structure and tone are a lazy mess, with no thought given to the differences between a first-person novel and a third-person play. Take the scene in which Patrick savages his red velvet birthday cake with a huge butcher knife he apparently keeps in his jacket. This scene does not exist in the novel because Ellis was at least smart enough to leave all of Patrick’s violent episodes unwitnessed. That way, when we later understand that they are fantasies, we are free to revise the picture in hindsight. Here, the guests are (as the script puts it) “in silent shock,” and the girlfriend suffers a moment of “quiet — and real — hurt.” But why real if it’s not really happening? Similarly, the big reveal near the end has been rejiggered as an in-person encounter instead of a phone call to make it more actively theatrical, but the result is actually limper and more confusing. Reading the novel, one might not have cared about logic but at least a trail of breadcrumbs existed allowing you to retrace your steps. Onstage, someone’s eaten them. 

I offer these examples as two among dozens that demonstrate the production’s lack of concern for how it achieves its effects, and at what cost to coherence. Even changes that may have worked on film are undermined by the musical format; what the camera registers sardonically feels silly and cartoonish when rendered onstage. (At one point the zombified ensemble does a nightclub-like dance number wearing jackets adorned with fringy red epaulets of spattered blood.) Apparently recognizing this problem, Aguirre-Sacasa has attempted to provide a more traditional musical through-line by beefing up the character of Patrick’s lovelorn secretary, Jean. In a very strange scene the two sit in the park with the underused Alice Ripley as Patrick’s self-anesthetized mother; she suggests that Jean, played touchingly by Jennifer Damiano, might be good wife material. (“You know, darling, if you married this one, maybe you’d be less unhappy.”) This musical-theater moment humanizes no one; it just makes them all seem stupid. Later, as Patrick prepares to kill her, Jean sings, “Does he need someone the way that I need him?” 

That song — “A Girl Before” — is actually among Sheik’s better efforts. There’s also a decent bossa nova (“At the End of an Island”) for Patrick’s visit to the Hamptons, and a clever number about those business cards. (“In the corporate coliseum / The crowd calls for a showman / My font? Imperial. / Yours? Times New Roman.”) But these are the exceptions. In the rest of the score, the combination of vague rhymes (“Betsey Johnson” isn’t even close to “Comme des Garçons”) and noodly structures makes for songs with no profile and thus no weight in the storytelling, however pretty the melodies may be. On the other hand, statement songs like the closing number (“This Is Not an Exit”) backfire by trying to be anthemic after two hours of songs that mock the expressive potential of the form. The only numbers that consistently nail down the dramatic moment, the mood, and the period are the five interpolated from the ’80s pop charts, including snippets of “Hip to Be Square” and “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” We have come to a low place indeed when a pop jukebox seems preferable to an original musical. 

Admittedly, I am squeamish about depictions of violence, even when they are necessary to a worthwhile argument. As such, I loathed the novel in the first place; how could I enjoy the musical in the second? But my distaste for both is not primarily the result of the subject matter. After all, Sweeney Todd, certainly one of the greatest musicals ever written, is also about a serial killer, mixing Grand Guignol grisliness (throat slashings, human meat pies) with low comedy. Sweeney Todd, though, aside from the sheer brilliance of its craft, has two things going for it that American Psycho can’t even dream of. One is that Sweeney is a coherent character, his madness reflecting the larger madness of the unjust world around him. The other is that Sweeney is exciting. His character develops in response to the changing situation around him. (That’s called drama.) Patrick Bateman, though played with unnerving verve by Benjamin Walker, is no Sweeney Todd; he’s a cipher who never develops. He’s thus a bore. And the idea that his fantasy violence reflects the real violence of a greedy society has never been more than dorm-room gasbaggery. Ellis and now the musical’s creative team try to sweep that problem under the rug of genre by suggesting that American Psycho is a satire of narcissism and anomie. It’s not. It’s merely an example of them.

American Psycho is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.