- American Psycho dir. by Rupert Goold
Does every surface need to be redeemed by hidden depths? The US premiere of American Psycho, a new musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel and conspicuously influenced by the 2000 movie version, grapples with this question in explicitly gory detail. Yet, unlike its notoriously ambiguous source material, this Broadway production, transferred from London, takes great pains to position itself unequivocally as a critique of the world it imitates. The musical, set in 1989, follows one year in the life of Patrick Bateman (Benjamin Walker), an investment banker who lives and kills in New York City. This Wall Street Everyman is an amalgam of surfaces, composed largely of elite brand names, designer clothes, ultramodern gadgets, and prescription drugs. Patrick’s portentous reference to a “nameless feeling” inside alerts the audience within the first few minutes of the performance that there is more to him than meets the eye, asking us to prospect for deposits of depth behind his carefully curated facade. This is not an uncommon strategy for the opening of an anti-hero musical (for example, Sweeney Todd, Wicked). Yet, American Psycho’s project is not so much to dispel misconceptions about a character’s alleged sociopathy as to interrogate cultural assumptions of an obligatory inner self, always distinct from and somehow more authentic than one’s public persona.
Using scenic and musico-dramatic tools evocative of the technological moment of the 1980s, the event reflected on contemporary changes in psychosocial conceptions of personhood stimulated by the confessional ethos of reality television and the internet. A translucent plastic curtain, drawn across the entire stage, placed the action within a screen, signaling the production’s organizing principle of full disclosure, Patrick’s sleek apartment proudly displayed on a fully lit stage before the actors entered. As the house lights dimmed, a formless flow of electronic sounds that had been oozing eerily from the speakers gave way to a sonic flood of commercials. Animated by the disembodied voices emanating from his television and stereo, Patrick stepped out of a tanning bed and, in a direct address to the audience, launched into a sensual inventory of his favorite products, charting his status-conscious geography of daily self-gratification along the looping routes of earning and spending. Es Devlin’s clever set design, complete with two turntables that resembled the rotating spools of cassette tape in Patrick’s Walkman, created a retro high-tech environment where people darted and sometimes danced like cyborgs or collections of pixels powered by the energy of consumerism. The electronic drone of Duncan Sheik’s pastiche score, composed in the style of 1980s synth pop and sprinkled with sizable quotes from the period’s hits, paralleled the characters’ glorified lack of substance with unabashed flatness, reinforcing the mechanical, transactional quality of their relationships and neoliberal aims.
Madness provides this musical’s main mode of gazing inward. Drawing on staging and dramaturgical approaches that have often been used to portray mental distress in contemporary theatre, the production’s creative team exteriorized the protagonist’s subjective experience by turning the stage environment into a representation of his inner world. As Patrick’s finger hit play on his Walkman, releasing the strains of the opening number, his exclusive function as narrator folded the onstage events into his perspective. The subsequent action progressively challenged the evening’s already tenuous connection to representational realism until the performance settled into an explicitly abstract mode in act 2, when conflicting orders of time and space bled into each other in a striking interplay of visual, sonic, and physical elements resembling unconscious fantasy or dreams. The disruptions to traditional temporal and spatial logics here closely tracked with the novel’s deployment of psychotic subjectivity as an alternative setting for the story, suggesting the possibility that the staged events, including lavishly realized blood-bath scenes, are only symbolic expressions of Patrick’s inner experiences that never actually take place in the external world.
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