The Bloody, Retro Horror of ‘American Psycho’ Is Also Very 2016
For much of his time on stage, with or without ax, the strapping actor Benjamin Walker—who plays the deranged Wall Street investment banker Patrick Bateman in the Broadway musical version of American Psycho—is clad only in white underwear.
Later, that underwear is splattered with blood, just as Walker's chest become smeared with it as the body count on stage rises.
But just as with Bret Easton Ellis’s original 1991 novel and Mary Harron’s movie, made in 2000, the tone of the musical—with music, lyrics and orchestrations by Duncan Sheik, and book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa—veers between comedic and horrific, between satire and splatter-horror, and between a savage social diary of the times, and a vivid exploration of psychological disintegration.
All of this is on a much bigger, Broadway scale than the play’s first gestation at London’s non-West End Almeida Theatre in 2013. Its director, Rupert Goold, hopes the stage version offers even more room for ambiguity in the piece’s characters plot, message, and morality.
On Broadway, American Psycho lands on stage in 2016, with the nostalgia industry that so bloomed at the time of its publication—for the 1960s, as in shows like The Wonder Years—now fully caught up with the 1980s and 1990s itself.
Today, pop culture nostalgia is such fast food, our looking back so immediate, even the aughts have been preserved in affectionate aspic.
Yet American Psycho—however you take it, horror story or ’80s satire or both—doesn’t do for the 1980s what a sitcom does. It doesn’t make it safe, it makes it toxic. It invites us to laugh at its excesses, its shoulder pads, its maximalism, but it also—through the walking, distorted prism that is Bateman—also invites us to look at its shallowness, its socially and culturally debasing backwash.
The dance sequences may look and sound brashly Broadway, but listen to the lyrics about venality and bloodlust: it’s brilliantly perverse toe tapping. Just as in the novel, Bateman celebrates, and recoils from balefully, the material excess around him.
The theater piece opens, as the movie did, with Bateman, in his tighty whites, showing us his morning exercise and make-up routine—which, as he removes the facial mask he uses, also introduces us to the idea that his identity may not be as fixed as his impressive body makes it seem. Just as in the novel and movie, we are not fully sure what has been real and who has been real at the final curtain.
“The book talks about his body, the relationship between the social and the corporeal,” says Goold. “When I looked at Ben I thought, ‘He really looks like Superman.’ He has this Clark Kent quality when he’s at work. I got very interested in the anti-hero version of Superman, the alter ego: an American destroyer by night, rather than savior.”
Indeed, we see Bateman at work, wanting to assert his dominance, but this assertion is, we quickly realize, rooted in the insecurity that he is not as powerful as Paul Owen, whom we see him in thrall to as much as the men around Bateman are around him.
On stage, even more than in the book, “Bateman”—whoever and whatever he is—isn’t just a cipher for all that was damning about the 1980s, but also seems to be a bloody cipher of conflicted masculinity too. Bateman violently rejects a gay character’s advances: there is some suggestion he too, despite the compulsive heterosexuality played out on stage, is at best sexually confused and ambivalent.
His relationship with girlfriend Evelyn is rooted firmly in material gain, rather than romance. The challenge he faces with the only truly good character on stage, his secretary (played by Jennifer Damiano) who is secretly in love with him, is whether he will spare her life, rather than bed her.
The look of the piece—in Katrina Lindsay’s evocative costumes and Es Devlin’s brilliant stage design—both encapsulates the era, and the skewed morality of most of the characters.
“The piece is in three modes,” Goold tells The Daily Beast. “One is almost like a Restoration comedy of manners—people talking ridiculously about frivolous subjects. It is also a savage look at social excess, and it is also a Dostoevsky-esque story of crime, punishment, damnation, and redemption. It could just be camp, fun, and silly, but everyone in the play read the book and found it said something profound to them.”
The basic set is all white, a deliberately sterile and blank canvas, meaning the audience can map on to it Bateman’s apartment, his girlfriend Evelyn’s place, his office, and—in a spectacular unfurling—the guts of the theater itself to double as an imagined Tunnel Club.
“A spotless man with a spotless conscience in a city of filth was the starting point,” says Goold. "It also means we can splash it with very strong colors.” (Not least, scarlet downpours of blood.)
The back of the stage is paneled, meaning that blood spatters here, there and everywhere, and can also then be shuttered clean and bright again on the other side as Bateman seeks some kind of atonement.
Artists such as Bruce Nauman, Lucian Freud, and Francis Bacon informed the startling, often grisly carnal tableaux we see—as did key scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.
The clothes are pitch-perfect: Rather like the words, they evoke the 1980s, including—as well as beyond—being a useful parodic device. The women are in both shoulder pads and short, tight cocktail dresses. Lindsay tells me the dresses include original ’80s frocks from the likes of Chanel and Yves St Laurent, from an impressive roster of Manhattan vintage stores: Rue St Denis, Cherry Vintage, New York Vintage, Manhattan Vintage Show, Resurrection, Ritual Vintage, Alexandra Sacchi, NY Showplace Antique, Amarcord, Beacon’s Closet, Tokio 7, Worship, and Allan and Suzi.
“We tried to be pretty true to the period: it was not a sartorial highpoint,” says Goold. “I wanted it to feel decorative and then also glamorous, rather than campy.” The men are in ridiculously boxy suits—Canali looms large. And when we visit clubland, it’s a downtown fantasia of the freaks looking like Leigh Bowery in neon Bodymap, contrasted with the Wall Street crowd, living—they imagine—on the edge.
Around it all orbits Bateman, or a figure we know as Bateman, himself. “He is desperate to fit in, and he is utterly unable to,” says Goold. “He has this terrible second life.”
The audience knows the blood-letting is going to be pretty extreme when a plastic screen descends between us and the scene where Bateman prepares to murder Owen, his nemesis.
And indeed out the red stuff splatters.
“This is a white set with smart costumes, and it is amazing how spread around the theater the blood goes,” says Goold. “The more shows I do the more I am struck that laughter, tears, fire, and blood are the four things that feel utterly authentic on stage. They do something to the audience, they are both beautiful and terrible.”
In London, there hadn’t been so much blood, Goold said, “and we felt the show had cheated the audience because of that. If you go and see Jaws, you don’t get much shark all the time, but you do need to see the shark at some point. That’s why you’re going. On one level, American Psycho is ‘grand guignol’ Victorian splatter, and on another it is like a painting by Bacon or Bosch. The tone of piece is playful and moves between both.”
The second half, for this viewer at least, achieved these tricky transitions more profoundly than the first. Around me people roared with laughter—not just at the ’80s-ness on display, for which there were many knowing looks at the fashion and some of the hit music played, but also the contrast of violence and scabrous humor.
Goold hopes audiences are sophisticated enough to move between the piece’s many registers. “The biggest challenge is to establish Bateman as an anti-hero, and so one of the most challenging scenes to get right is his scene with the detective when he confesses to what he’s done.”
The murder pieces too are intricately choreographed—not just Bateman’s slaying of his Wall Street nemesis, but also a big dance sequence, where his serial killing is vividly illustrated as a pile of seething, bloody bodies.
Maybe the audience laughs more on Broadway, says Goold, than in the U.K., when I ask if he’s noted any differences between the two.
“The book is less well-known in the UK—it’s maybe seen as a piece about the ’80s—whereas in America Patrick Bateman and American Psycho are both canonical, so people are coming to see how the story is represented.”
And if you sit there, not knowing whether to laugh or be horrified, then American Psycho has done its bizarre best: It is both feelgood, but at its heart, emphatically feelbad. We are watching it, as Goold and his actors know, in a present-day when nostalgia for the kind of 1980s Bateman represents comes too heavily spiked with the knowledge of what chaos that rampant greed helped spawn many years later—and continues to spawn today.
American Psycho is a period piece for sure, with more than an echo in the present—and, beyond all the blood and mayhem on stage, that’s why it’s hard to laugh too heartily.