Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 21, 2016
American Psycho Book by Robert Aguirre-Sacasa. Music & lyrics by Duncan Sheik. Based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. Directed by Rupert Goold. Choreography by Lynne Page. Scenic design by Es Devlin. Costume design by Katrina Lindsay. Lighting design by Justin Townsend. Video design by Finn Ross. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier. Hair & wigs by Campbell Young Associates. Makeup design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: Benjamin Walker, Heléne Yorke, Jennifer Damiano, Drew Moerlein, Alice Ripley, Krystina Alabado, Dave Thomas Brown, Jordan Dean, Anna Eilinsfeld, Jason Hite, Ericka Hunter, Holly James, Kyle Randolph Smith, Theo Stockman, Alex Michael Stoll, Morgan Weed, Dave Thomas Brown, Alex Michael Stoll, Ericka Hunter, Sydney Morton, Neka Zang, Brandon Kalm, Anthony Sagaria, Krystina Alabado, Anna Eilinsfeld.
The only problem? Sacasa and Sheik had nothing to do with it. Nor, for that matter, did anyone else involved in this big, Broadway-misfire adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's controversial 1991 novel. No, the heroes here are a shimmering sextet called Huey Lewis and the News, who produced one of the few worthwhile songs and the only memorable moment in this sterile, static, and flat-out frustrating evening.
It's a perennial toe-tapper and shoulder-shaker titled "Hip to Be Square," from the group's 1986 album Fore!, which in its reliance on synthesizer, electric guitars, and unbridled personal optimism couldn't sound or feel more 1980s. Of course, its use here (as in both the novel and the 2000 film made from it) is entirely ironic: The 27-year-old man who so adores it and is currently dancing to it with a knee-crushing, thrusting abandon, a Wall Street financier named Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker), is secretly living the song's dicta fully enough to be at odds with polite society. He is, you see, a serial killer in ascendance, and he's cutting a mean rug with his colleague-victim, Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein), before cutting open his head with an axe.
Or is he? That is, or at least is supposed to be, the underlying mystery: How can this man who has endless amounts of money, an insanely hot girlfriend, a gym-chiseled body, and no shortage of opportunity before him be so unable to think or function normally? The typical answer is that Bateman is a symbol, a satirical critique of the Me Decade that embodied both its boundless promise and the abyssal darkness to which such unchecked ambition would almost certainly eventually lead. And as he progresses through his increasingly maddening, and increasingly mad-making life, that's at once the most charitable and most terrifying conclusion you can draw.
Just... not in the musical. Satire of this sort is not an ideal fit for a medium whose natural language is exuberant song and dance to begin with, which means it must be handled with the utmost delicacy and talent. Such characteristics are rare here, however, as Sacasa, Sheik, and their director, Rupert Goold, have gone to extravagant lengths to hit home every idea with no less than pile-driver subtlety.
But when Patrick is one of the gang to this extent, his distinction is muted: What indeed separates him from the others? And why does it matter to himand why should it matter to us? The novel and the movie handle this deftly, by way of a slow-burn breakdown that's constantly redrawing the boundaries of sanity through misunderstanding, misdirection, and maybe outright lies. We see he's different because he's not a known quantity, whereas everyone else is. When everyone is the same, as in the musical, Patrick is only special because he broods a bit more deeply than the others.
Sacasa, who structures many of his scenes as though they're parodies of the book's vivisection of commercialism, and Goold, who stages them with wind-chilled indifference, prevent anything from catching fire. To where can you build when you telegraph the end from the beginning as fearlessly as the creative team here does? The awkward, New Age-angularity choreography (by Lynne Page), shifting mindscape gray-box set (by Es Devlin), and hyperactive lights and video (respectively by Justin Townsend and Finn Ross), keep you mired in PCP-laced fantasy land. Even the second act, essentially a nonstop slaughter that would wrench Sweeney Todd with envy, is inert: You know that Patrick isn't actually running around Manhattan clad only in his underwear, slathered in blood, so why bother caring? How can the show be real if Patrick isn't?
Ideally, a musical would particularize himand everyone elsethrough the songs; a great musical might also establish an elaborate texture through which we'd witness Patrick's gradual deterioration in aural terms. But Sheik (Spring Awakening) prefers to drown us in prepackaged 1980s throb, with pulsating bass lines and droning phrases that shriek "club scene" but illuminate nothing theatrically. All his songs, as orchestrated (by himself) and musical directed (by Jason Hart), have the same lethargic surge: of a detouring subway train, not of human souls in existential crisis. When Patrick sings "It's the end of the world / The veil is slipping / It's the end of the world / I'm not just tripping," you don't buy that he buys it.
Sheik's songs are not meant to be absorbed, merely observed through the plasticky sheen that coats the show front to back. Whether it's Patrick revealing nothing ("You see me gliding / But there's something hiding / In the shadow") or Evelyn and her gal-pals name-dropping ("Chanel, Gautier or Giorgio Armani / Moschino, Alaia, or Norma Kamali") or even Jean's sputtering torch number ("Am I someone he could linger on? / Or would he simply move along / Am I someone he would love more / Would I be just a girl before"), it's writing for effect, not drama, which ensures neither is achieved. Scope, scale, and adventure might be able to solve this material's trouble; Sheik attempts none of them. (This is, to no small degree, why the Huey Lewis song, and a handful of other interpolations landthey're more accurate for this universe than anything of Sheik's.)
Though the cast is uniformly game and attractive as outfitted in Katrina Lindsay's sometimes-costumes (shiny, slick, and clingy when they're present, but the men frequently parade about without shirts and the women in skimpy, skin-tight dresses), none of them can overcome the deficits of the writing. Only Damiano, playing things more or less straight and honestly; Moerlein, who doesn't overcook his character's overstuffed frat-boy inclinations; and Keith Randolph Smith, as the meddling detective investigating Paul's disappearance come close to succeeding. Everyone else is so huge they become microscopic, so obvious they become impenetrable ciphers.
This is true also of Walker, who lugs the entire production about on his shoulders. Though he effortlessly conquered the sly, rebellious title role in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, here he's so knowing that his constant winking through the material signals congenital pink eye. He's powerful of stature and authoritative of voice, but so detached from honesty that, whether in portraying his overt subterfuge or an apparently legitimate breakdown, his Patrick is always observably playing a role. There comes a time when, one way or another, that needs to fall away, but, right up until the final scene, Walker never gets there.
He never had a chance. Those behind this musical needed to follow in the path of the novel and the movie and pull us toward a clearer, scarier, and perhaps truer view of ourselves as we worktoo hardin pursuit of our own impossible and occasionally dangerous aspirations. But they pushed us away by trying too hard to make their point, and forcing the show forever further into fakeness. This American Psycho is too square to be hip.