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Theatre in Review: American Psycho (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

Benjamin Walker, Jennifer Damiano, Alice Ripley. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

If the people at American Psycho really want to get into the spirit of the entertainment they have created, they should rename it Anhedonia! The Musical. Rarely has a team of top talents so thoroughly conspired to deprive the audience of an entertaining evening. Even if Bret Easton Ellis' novel, about a Wall Street banker who moonlights as a serial killer, seemed like a dubious musical theatre prospect, it could have been reshaped in any number of ways for the stage -- for example, as a thriller or a Swiftian satire on our materialistic culture. Somehow, however, the notion of provoking or disturbing the audience has gone by the boards. Instead, the show at the Schoenfeld is a largely pleasure-free excursion through a 1980s Manhattan populated by the vacuous members of the one percent, with time out for the occasional disemboweling. The production begins smashingly, with a bank of fog, a burst of lighting and video, an eruption of gut-rattling sound, and spurts of blood, with the musical's title appearing on the transparent drop that occasionally separates us from the actors. After that, and a striking opening number, American Psycho drifts off into a cloud of anomie from which it rarely recovers.

Indeed, it often feels as if there is a screen separating us from the people on stage, whether alive, dead, or somewhere in-between. The title character, Patrick Bateman, who, in addition to being a banker and independently wealthy, is a snappy dresser with a perfectly chiseled body, access to any number of available women, and all the drugs and liquor he can hold -- which is saying something. He is also incapable of human feeling, and, as the show progresses, is apparently unraveling in full view -- if only his friends, family, and colleagues weren't too shallow and empty to notice. His way of blowing off steam is to commit random murders, most often taking the bodies off to an apartment in the West 40s, where he dissolves them in quicklime.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's book repeats most of the novel's key features: The intensively detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing; the endless procession of hip restaurants serving chic, but inedible, dishes ("sashimi with goat cheese," "gravlax pot pie," and "grilled salmon with raspberry vinegar and a side of maple guacamole"), and the effusive tributes to such '80s bands as Huey Lewis and the News. Most of the book's major episodes are here, including an exchange of business cards that descends, in Patrick's mind, into a mano a mano confrontation, a shootout at the Wall Street Corral; the ghastly Christmas party thrown by Patrick's more-or-less girlfriend, Evelyn; the joyless threesome with two prostitutes; Patrick's anxiety attack in the nightclub Tunnel; his awkward encounter with an ice-cold Tom Cruise in their co-op's elevator; the Hamptons vacation where Patrick starts to freak out, frying jellyfish in the microwave and eating them (luckily we don't see this); and the misguided pursuit of Patrick by Luis, a closeted acquaintance, which, believe me, doesn't end well.

No attempt has been made to shape these events into dramatic form; we are merely invited to watch Patrick maim, murder, and melt down for a couple of hours, while he and his friends move around in a narcotic haze, snorting coke, bedding whomever, and snapping up the next hot reservation -- - not necessarily in that order. And because the characters are too-easy caricatures or ciphers, their deaths evoke little or no horror; the one exception is Jean, Patrick's shy, sincere secretary (a nicely understated performance by Jennifer Damiano), who unwisely carries a torch for her boss. A sequence in which he invites her up to his place for a drink packs a real sense of dread as Patrick, for once, fights his worst urges. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the material has been watered down for Broadway: Gone is Patrick's random killing of a small child at the Central Park Zoo; acts of animal cruelty have been eliminated; and the many instances in which the poor and homeless are taunted have been reduced to a single occasion. The sexual content has been toned down. And the book's most egregious episodes -- Patrick penetrating a disembodied head and dining on organs, the stench raised by bodies left lying around his apartment -- have been eliminated.

With a central character who feels nothing and a chorus of vacant socialites, the opportunities for satire are exhausted after one or two scenes and any chance for musical expression is highly limited, but a better musical score might at least have given the story a jolt of energy. Instead Duncan Sheik's numbers are a collection of trance-music dirges, which, if anything, have the effect of further dragging down the action. (The interpolation of a number of tuneful period hits, such as "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and "Hip to be Square," only points up the lack of melodic hooks.) These are matched by Sheik's remarkably banal lyrics. One song, "You Are What You Wear," consists of little more than a series of fashion brand names, with the height of cleverness reached with "Let's be clear/There's nothing ironic/About our love of Manolo Blahnik." One of Patrick's ballads goes thusly: "Look at history/Open the books/There are statues with great looks/There are gods, there are kings/I'm pretty sure I'm the same thing." This may be one case where the clarity of Dan Moses Schreier's excellent sound design has an unintentionally undermining effect.

American Psycho has two things going for it: The first is Benjamin Walker, who brings his effortless star presence to the role of Patrick. From his first appearance, dressed only in white underpants, in a tanning bed that rises up from under the stage, he is a near-perfect Patrick Bateman. Walker looks and speaks like a Hollywood leading man of the '50s -- think Rock Hudson or Gregory Peck -- and it's easy to see how people fall under his spell. At the same time, he palpably communicates the rising dread behind his manicured, hydrated, and well-toned façade, and his growing inability to get through the day without having an episode that ends in bloodshed. He also sings powerfully, adding some heft to the thinnest numbers. When he says to Jean, "There is no real me," there is something deeply chilling in the statement.

It also benefits from a dazzling physical production. Es Devlin's all-white set depicts Patrick's apartment, with its '80s-chic vertical blinds, towering shelves of VHS tapes, and pornographic "artwork," and serves as an ideal surface for Finn Ross' stunning projections -- of video snow, song lyrics, and many views of Manhattan, among other images. The walls fly out for the Hamptons sequence, replaced by a fence made of white boards that revolve open to reveal bloodstains. The set also contains a pair of turntables that are put to good use in several numbers, especially in "Mistletoe Alert," in which we see the company, at a Christmas party, spinning around, wearing antlers and striking ever more intense poses of boredom, fury, and terror. The set, projections, sound, and Justin Townsend's inventive lighting combine in the opening sequence, "Morning Routine" and "Selling Out," creating the sense that Patrick lives inside a vintage '80s-era music video. In a show populated by clotheshorses, Katrina Lindsay's costumes ruthlessly spoof the ostentatious fashion statements of the decade.

Aside from Damiano, who creates a character out of nothing, the only other cast member who gets a chance to score is Heléne Yorke, a constantly amusing presence as the venal Evelyn, who doesn't care if Patrick is a psychopath as long as she can land him, 2.5 children, and a house in Connecticut. The great Alice Ripley is utterly wasted in a trio of small roles, principally Patrick's mother, a big-haired, pill-popping trainwreck. Drew Moerlein is solid as a rival banker who runs afoul of Patrick, as are Morgan Weed as Patrick's B girlfriend (they have sex with a giant plush toy) and Jordan Dean as the seriously wrongheaded Luis.

The director, Rupert Goold, has orchestrated the production's flashier aspects well, and surely he played a role in Walker's performance, but he has done nothing to give the narrative any shape or sense of mounting tension. The number in which the company, dressed in blood-spattered white underwear, impersonates Patrick's victims, ending up in a pile downstage, their bodies twitching as life runs out, is one for the books.

Most crucially, nobody involved in this production has answered the question of why American Psycho had to become a musical. The story resists dramatization and its satire is obvious and flatfooted. (This is a problem with the book, which takes 400 pages to make a point that could be dispatched in 50.) And anyone who thinks that it offers a serious critique of inequality in America has been patronizing one of Patrick's coke dealers. As the last song says, "None of this/Exists for me/There is no consistency/There is only entropy." I couldn't have put it better myself. -- David Barbour

(22 April 2016)

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