Benjamin Walker wears clothes and almost no clothes with equal elan in American Psycho, the blood-spattered, label-obsessed musical that opened on Broadway tonight. Perhaps the star has a thing for blood; it was, after all, his gleefully free-form performance in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that put him on the map. That comic-strip musical is Barney compared with the hematic horrors of the current enterprise.
American Psycho is based on the 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis and, later, the 2000 film starring Christian Bale in the title role of Patrick Bateman, a too-rich young man of the 1980s, a master of the universe with a taste for luxury goods, trendy restaurants and extreme carnage. The show opens vertically, with Walker in tighty whities emerging from a tanning booth, enumerating every action of his morning ablutions and the many accoutrements of his lavishly accessorized lifestyle, from the Alan Flusser suit to the Toshiba TV that has, of course, got picture-in-picture, the very latest in techno-gimcrackery.
Unlike Bale, who brought a scary chill to the role, Walker is more of a man-child, his ambition and his malice subdued by a vaguely goofy smile; in his CKs he recalls not so much Jack the Ripper as Tom Cruise in Risky Business (Cruise also makes an appearance in the show, in a hilariously mean elevator scene) — albeit a swoon-worthy specimen of preening self-regard.
When American Psycho was published, Easton Ellis was savaged by womens’ groups for writing what the National Organization for Women called a handbook for torturers and murderers of women. Although Bateman’s victims occasionally include men, most are the social X-rays who filter through his world, there primarily to provide sex, drugs and arm candy for excursions to the latest dining adventure. The author had a pretty good point in arguing that he had written satire, not testimony, and much of the world has come around to seeing American Psycho as a prescient alarm sounded about a culture drowning in stuff.
Nevertheless, the gleefully explicit manner in which Patrick dispatches his acquaintances is something other than say, the dime-novel shaves Sweeney Todd gives his victims or the sing-song lasciviousness with which Audrey II cries out “Feed me!” in Little Shop of Horrors. A clear plastic scrim hangs in the front of the stage at the Schoenfeld Theatre not only to protect the audience from blood spray but to enhance the effect. It’s one part shower scene from Psycho, one part Jackson Pollock.
The musical has an awkward book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, best known as the man brought in to help salvage Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark (no one could), and Duncan Sheik, who wrote the beautiful score for Spring Awakening and here delivers confident, well-crafted numbers whose titles — “Selling Out,” “You Are What You Wear,” “Killing Spree” for example –don’t require much explanation.
The director is Rupert Goold and the choreographer is Lynne Page; the dances are the most frightening thing about American Psycho, as the actors contort and distort themselves in jagged, angular paroxysms of stoned lust and raw hunger. I feared the sound of snapping limbs throughout.
They are all immersed in the ’80s Manhattan culture that seems to be making a comeback with a vengeance, as if we’ve finally become meta enough to enjoy it and be above it at the same time. Es Devlin’s set is nurse’s uniform white with an ice-blue chill from Justin Townshend’s lighting that reminded me of General Cinema multiplexes from the ’70s. It’s also very tacky, Patrick’s expensive equipment and videos looking like slapped-on Contact Paper facsimiles,
There may be a hipster audience for this, but I wasn’t buying it. I no more enjoyed the mass slaughter depicted on stage than I would seeing a dramatization of Jonathan Swift that included the actual consumption of children. Moreover, Aguirre-Sacasa and director Goold (and possibly Walker as well) have conspired to defang Patrick somewhat, embellishing his back story (the great Alice Ripley is wasted playing, among other roles, Bateman’s mom) and the possibility of redemption. The sum of these effects is to create a celebration of vapidity and inhumanity that is itself vapid and inhuman. Didn’t do much for me.