Since soullessness is the essence of Patrick Bateman, the antihero of Bret Easton Ellis’s notoriously savage fantasia on ’80s greed, “American Psycho,” you could argue that an all-style-and-no-substance musical version might possibly be appropriate. And helmer Rupert Goold and his design team certainly capture the high-veneer ’80s style that Bateman so worships. But beneath the highly polished surface there’s little drama or, crucially, danger. In a serial-killer thriller, that’s not just a problem, it’s an indictment.
According to the publicity, the show is based on the novel. But the opening image rising up through the floor — the tall, fit body of ice-cool Matt Smith in nothing but tight white briefs and an aqua eye mask — slavishly re-creates the U.K’s DVD cover image of the movie. But where the movie cleverly played with audience’s fears by presenting Bateman’s shocking behavior as real and only later suggesting everything to be his fantasy, the stage production never really allows us to believe that Patrick is a reliable narrator. To make that a valid choice requires the creation of tension between what he believes and what we see — but that tension is missing throughout.
The show’s oddest decision is its near-total refusal to depict the gore that defines the work. That may come from the well-intentioned position of not wishing to revel in Bateman’s murderous violence as he slaughters prostitutes and rivals of both genders. Whatever the reason, it robs the show of darkness and, for the most part, any galvanizing sense of horror.
Aside from the early, swift stabbing of a vagrant in the street, the only physical violence we see in the first act is the climatic killing of his smooth-talking, loathed colleague Paul Owen (nicely easeful Ben Aldridge.) That sets us up for a tauter, more disturbing second half … that fails to materialize.
For such potentially explosive material, tethering composer and lyric writer Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”) to the skilled stagecraft of Goold looked like an ideal match. One of the many strengths of “Spring Awakening” was its imaginative use of the raw energy of rock music to depict the teenagers’ angst. That boded well for the intensity of Bateman, whose chilly exterior masks a man ceaselessly dedicated to quelling inner rage. But despite Matt Smith’s game effort — you can see Bateman’s pain behind his eyes — any fierceness he arouses is neutered by the score’s flippancy.
Sheik’s 15 songs are largely ’80s pastiche — lots of synth and drum machine. But although that’s tonally right, pastiche is a troublesome device because it flattens individual expression. His songs lack drive, going instead for a largely satirical tone as in “You Are What You Wear,” a number for the smartly posing women that mimics Madonna’s “Vogue,” listing brands and rhyming “creme de menthe” with “Oscar de la Renta.”
It must have seemed like a move towards authenticity to add in six genuine ’80s songs. And David Shrubsole’s luscious harmonic pileups in his vocal arrangements of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” are standouts. But these songs are more about tone than they are about drama and, worse, make Sheik’s score fade into the background since his new work simply cannot compete with the hits.
Nor do his lyrics do him favors, especially in the weak closing number, which, borrowing the book’s device of narration by Patrick, spells everything out in case we missed the point of the preceding two-and-a-half hours. Using seriously forced rhyming, Patrick intones: “Maybe this show is just a symptom / Of late capital-ISM” and “There is no allegory / There’s no memento mori.”
There’s neatly sharp-edged work from Susannah Fielding as Patrick’s vapid girlfriend Evelyn, balanced by the bruised tenderness of Katie Brayben as his Lithium-loving lover. And, visually, the production is a treat with Finn Ross working wonders splashing era- and scene-defining video against the walls of Es Devlin’s hard, white set. However, the ensemble work, snappily choreographed by Lynne Page and dressed in high style by Katrina Lindsay with terrific period wigs/hair, feels more savage than the material they’re commenting upon.
Producers are already all over the show. The return to the stage of Smith, the BBC’s soon-to-be-ex-Dr.Who, plus the allure of the title, have meant the entire run and an extension have sold out in advance. The combination may also ensure further life. But an “American Psycho” sans shock that scores highest for its sense of period can’t honestly be considered a success.