No, American Psycho, an imported Almeida and Headlong production, is not about the current Republican presidential campaign. On the other hand, yes, it is very much Sweeney Todd for the 21st century. But while it deals with a compulsive protagonist of the homicidal kind, is it compulsory viewing for the rest of us?
That depends on what you're in the mood for. If topping your list of requirements is a stunning enterprise, you're advised to speed yourself--not necessarily on speed--to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where Es Devlin has constructed a sleek white-and-grey set that instantly announces the film-noirish treatment director Rupert Goold has committed to make of Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 American Psycho novel.
Enhancing the set are Katrina Lindsay's costumes, most of them black, white, grey and/or red, although there's the occasional blue pinstriped suit and at least one tailored green suit. Right up at Lindsay's lofty design level are Justin Townsend's lighting, the apocalyptic sound Dan Moses Schreier manufactures and the video adornments Finn Ross creates.
Praising these contributors at this review's outset is a way of indicating that the creative team is gorgeously of a piece with Goold's intentions as bookwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. songwriter Duncan Sheik and he shift Ellis's grim (not to say Grimm) tale of investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman from page to stage. The driven antihero is played by ultra-buff Benjamin Walker, who's asked to strip down to his Ralph Lauren skivvies so often that he starts to look as if he's only just leapt from the front of a high-end underwear box.
Those who've read the novel or seen the 2000 movie with Christian Bale as snuff-prone Bateman know that Ellis wrote it as a wryly hilarious satire of a Master of the Universe with no regard for his fellow man or woman but much concern for the defoliant he applies to his handsome face and the Gucci-Prada-You-Name-the Label wardrobe he wears. Judging by the Bridget Riley-influenced canvas on a wall here, he also seems to have a large regard for his art collection.
There's no getting away from Goold's fully realizing the astringently critical vision of the 1980s he's after as remorseless Bateman wields knife, axe and acid to do away for any number of expendable, as he sees it, New Yorkers. The corpses include a homeless man (Keith Randolph Smith) and rival and coveted Fisher-account winner Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein in a mesmerizingly sinuous performance). (Never forget: The decade also gave us heartless Gordon Gecko.)
Bateman's gruesome extra-curricular activities also occur while he keeps postponed fiancée Evelyn Williams (Helene Yorke) and bed partner Courtney Lawrence (Morgan Weed) guessing his commitments. Hanging about are nice-girl secretary Jean (Jennifer Damiano), who hankers for him silently, while his mother Mrs. Bateman (Alice Ripley) and brother Sean (Jason Hite) drop in cluelessly but acerbically every once in a while.
In other circumstances, Goold's ruthless scrutiny of Bateman's pointless, privileged life presented in such cruel harmony with the production's chillingly stunning appearance would be a big plus. Unfortunately, that isn't the eventual effect here while Aguirre-Sacasa fits in as many '80s references he can think up.
American Psycho gets going like gangbusters. Goold, most recently of Charles III, and team instantly knock patron's eyes out, and they're abetted by Lynne Page's choreography, which has the agile cast members dancing as if they've all ingested the synthetic pharmaceutical equivalent of the heebie-jeebies and, as a result, are out to perform their spin on Madonna's "Vogue" video. Goold, Page et al conjure a frighteningly inhuman view of the 30-year-ago time, when it's also worth recalling that just-mentioned Madonna filled the airwaves singing "Material Girl."
The problem is that keeping up the harsh regard soon palls. It isn't exceptionally long before the audience has registered Bateman's cold temperament and is increasingly cooling towards it. Unfortunately, Goold and dramatist Aguirre-Sacasa deem it necessary to offer more of the same, only ratcheted up. Maybe the blame for their miscalculation can be attributed to novelist Ellis, but somehow in his manuscript he gets away with the repetition.
In time, the Goold-Aguirre-Sacasa idea of doubling down on Bateman's relentless blood letting is to spray the set and the ensemble with more and more blood. Eventually in the second act, this leads to a gross and superfluous blood-spattered undergarments number.
(N. B.: Walker was the title character in Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson. Now he's bloody, bloody Patrick Bateman. What's next? Bloody, bloody Fitzwilliam Darcy? Also N. B.: Goold's bloody, bloody Macbeth was a highlight of the 2007-8 theater season. He certainly has an affinity for the sticky red stuff.)
Sameness also slinks in as Sheik's score (the orchestrations are his, too), drives on. He catches the decade's rock pulse throughout, and Jason Hart conducts the small band with synchronous authority. Nevertheless, the songs add up in time to one long '80s-reminiscent dirge. They're delivered with the proper sangfroid but just not sufficiently differentiated. (The real things are incorporated via ditties by Tears for Fears, Phil Collins and Huey Lewis and the News.)
Sheik's mundane lyrics--inclined during the early songs to dropping designer and product names--aren't good enough either. The craftsmanship is particularly careless. (Keep in mind that for the far superior Spring Awakening score, Sheik is credited for the music but Steven Sater receives the lyricist credit.) Nope, this is another show where the audience exits crooning the scenery.
Although I've described American Psycho as eventually a one-note harangue, that's slightly misleading. There is a point after Bateman's many murders--after his having to ward off the persistent homosexual advances of colleague Luis Carruthers (Jordan Dean) and after assistant Jean's infatuation confession--that streaks of guilt spread through him. To resort to a cliché (because the script does), that's when he sees the error of his ways.
This is a jolting cop-out. Suddenly, Bateman is standing at the edge of the stage singing about being a "solipsist." More than that, he's informing one and all that we, too, are implicated in his criminal behavior. At one and the same time, he's hammering the musical's sardonic point in case some of us dolts in the audience missed it and he's doing what the chorus does at the end of Sweeney Todd: pointing his finger at the patrons as fellow assassins.
Does Ellis do this? Not by a country mile. Hewing to the courage of his convictions, he doesn't turn his bravura book into this kind of sell-out gesture. As a result, the final on-stage American Psycho minutes do nothing to sustain a venture that has already overstayed its welcome.