If masculinity is so fragile, here to the rescue is the satirical American Psycho: The Musical to make sure that no white male tears go unsung. I’m both totally joking and yet completely serious, and so it seems is this funny, strange, and unfortunately uneven musical based on the Bret Easton Ellis book. When the satire clicks it’s devilish in its gruesome glee, and yet it contains something deeper than its slick packaging belies. Sadly, the whole endeavor is not as tight as Ben Walker’s abs, in which flaw cannot be found, and which get quite a public workout in this show. With provocatively staged moments and trenchant dialogue, the musical falls short most often in the music and lyrics. It veers so close to brilliance but keeps missing the mark.
Ben Walker proves he can stretch himself and does so here, as the murderous Patrick Bateman. Walker (who remains shirtless and often pants-less for much of the show) is the preening demi-God of 80’s perfection, Bateman. Tan, toned, and terrified of becoming irrelevant. Is he slipping? You’d think he was at the top of the food chain and yet there’s always someone a little higher up, including his nemesis Paul Owen (Drew Moerlein). He’s under all sorts of pressures, poor fella. His materialistic girlfriend Evelyn (Heléne Yorke) just wants him to propose. His po-faced mother (Alice Ripley) just wants him to be happy. His secretary Jean (Jennifer Damiano) moons over him and wonders what’s behind his mysterious façade—it turns out, a lot of dismembered bodies.
To regain control in his life he takes out his wrath on a homeless man, prostitutes, and business rivals with axes, chainsaws, and knives. No one seems to notice the blood dripping down his body as he strolls through his perfectly chic life all the while descending into madness. It’s New York and who you’re wearing (Ralph Lauren underwear accented by someone’s blood) is all that really matters.
American Psycho: The Musical makes a fascinating companion piece to Young Jean Lee’s anthropological Straight White Men. Their approach and point of view are different but both shows move away from the white male experience as the default universal. Where Lee examined white, male privilege, here we delve into power and masculinity with a more exacting lens.
Patrick Bateman has always been a symbol of a certain kind of Wall Street man but Walker’s deeply vulnerable performance inflects Bateman with unexpected nuance.
Walker’s Bateman reveals an awkward, unguarded core. Bateman’s love of musicals, his terrible dancing, and his obsession with horror movies, all come across less like comical punchlines to his slick, callous demeanor and more like aspects of a nerdy, young boy who grew up into this empty, despairing man standing before us.
When we start to see him as a person, he becomes someone we cannot laugh at. Walker makes us connect to this character. That unto itself is disturbing on a different level than his blood sport. The book of the musical (by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) offers Walker these frequent windows into Bateman’s soul and he plunges in with dexterity.
But the flimsiness of the production ekes away at its power. The wan music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik cover plastic subjects in a banal way. Their satiric edge feels dull especially compared to the otherwise sharp dialogue. The synth-heavy orchestrations (also by Sheik) play tinny and distant. Worse, when actual pop hits from the 80’s are sung, you kind of wish the cast would just keep singing those familiar hits instead.
Rupert Goold’s direction presents some powerful tableaux that could haunt your dreams (the opening scene is elegant, terrifying, and beautiful) but he cannot maintain the tension.You cringe at the small cast trying to play multiple roles and desperately boost the stage energy with rotating turntables (why must stage renderings of New York City by British directors be like a flashy taxi ride of zoom-zoom zippiness.)
Goold has the cast occasionally pop through the audience to bring the action closer but it’s not enough to create an impact. The intimate violence of it would mean so much more in a claustrophobic space, but in a Broadway house we are detached. Here we’re observers who don’t take a moment to check our laughter as our complicity in what we’re watching. The production doesn’t have to literally spill out into our seats to create that sensation, but the show should at least get under an audience’s skin more than it does.
As Bateman starts to lose his grip more and more, the production fails to rise with it. As the violence escalates even a gentle human touch is anathema to Bateman. Goold has Walker twitch and flinch more like a zombie than a man when anyone gets close, but it evokes little. The musical never reaches operatic levels of violence, bloodshed, or lunacy, even if the story and scenario is getting stranger and more extreme. In some ways it’s too down-to-earth—as blood-spattered satires of über-masculinity go. It’s frustrating because the show is actually touching on interesting ideas not often explored in musical theatre. Worse, there are cutting moments that click and make you sense the promise of a great play (less so the promise of a great musical), but those moments fade and it dwindles into something less precise. Somehow it’s frequently funny, often entertaining, and yet still not cohesive. But Walker’s all-in performance alone is worth seeing.
American Psycho is currently playing at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. Click here for more information.