A new ‘American Psycho’ musical with a score by Duncan Sheik offers a fresh take on Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial novel.
LONDON — The title character of Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork Sweeney Todd is a barber who, after losing his family and his freedom to a trumped-up conviction, turns murderous, serving “a dark and a vengeful god.”
Patrick Bateman, the protagonist in the new musical thriller American Psycho (***½ out of four stars), answers to no such entity. Living in late-20th-century New York, 26-year-old Patrick enjoys the rarefied privileges of the well-born and ambitious, commuting from his spacious Upper West Side apartment to his swank Wall Street office before meeting buddies at the city’s most elite restaurants and nightclubs.
In his spare time, Patrick tortures and kills people — homeless men, casual lovers, prostitutes, a colleague he envies. It’s nothing personal; Patrick, he insists, isn’t really a person, at least not in the sense of having a conscience or the capacity to love, or even feel.
“I simply am not there,” he tells us — though those in his inner circle, from his longtime girlfriend his closest pals, don’t seem to notice.
First introduced in Bret Easton Ellis’ controversial 1991 novel, from which composer/lyricist Duncan Sheik and librettist Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa adapted this breathtaking, troubling work — now at the Almeida Theatre — Patrick has become a grotesque symbol of both go-go capitalism at its most callous and superficial and a generation that seemed to want everything, yet put off accepting the kind of responsibilities and commitments that lead to adult fulfillment.
More than 20 years later, the crass materialism and extended adolescence Ellis parodied are still very much part of our culture. So it shouldn’t surprise that this stage adaptation feels contemporary, from Es Devlin’s sleek set design to Sheik’s songs, which nod heavily to ’80s synth-pop (hits from that era are also referenced) while embracing the crisper, more vivid technology employed in modern electronic music.
The musical’s creators, abetted by Rupert Goold’s razor-sharp direction, also mine the novel’s dark wit while making the characters seem a bit more human than they profess to be. We first see Patrick, superbly played by Doctor Who alumnus Matt Smith, describing the daily regimen through which he maintains physical perfection, his voice utterly affectless in song and speech.
But there is, if not a soul, a sense of self-awareness in this sociopath. Where Christian Bale, in a 2000 film adaptation, gave Patrick a sort of game-show-host unctuousness, Smith is more earnest, and reveals subtle but deepening shades of desperation as Patrick grows increasingly unhinged.
We don’t get to know the other characters as well, though none of them seem especially likeable, with the exception of Patrick’s secretary, Jean — an endearing Cassandra Compton — whose gentle grace distinguishes her from the other restless, self-absorbed young things.
But if the vacuousness of these men and women and the world they inhabit can be overstated, the musical numbers — lean but lush, with haunting melodies and soaring, sometimes a cappella vocals — convey a certain longing for longing.
And after a handful of violent sequences, all artfully managed, the show concludes with a series of twists that will leave you stunned and moved — among them a kiss as tense and tender as any you’ll likely witness onstage.
In the end, this American Psycho doesn’t — mercifully — sell us entirely on its bleak premise. But it does provide some of the most engaging and, yes, thrilling new musical theater we’ve seen in years.