In the world of American Psycho, the 1991 book by Bret Ellis later adapted to a film starring Christian Bale, violent urges, cocaine and loveless engagements mock the real world of late-’80s Wall Street, where conformity and apathy were as much prerequisite as a résumé. The bloody satire quickly brought controversy. The New York Times Book Review urged readers to “Snuff This Book!” and Bateman’s repetitious enumeration of entire wardrobes while nail-gunning women to floors dulled readers as much as the gore incensed them. And now, the blood and the psychopathy — and the dark, dark laughs — take to Broadway in American Psycho: The Musical.
Last week, as the source material leapt onto Broadway (and did a pirouette during one of the first musical numbers), the quiet hysterics had their volume turned up. Within a musical context, Patrick Bateman and his gaggle of fashion- and food-obsessed contemporaries are often hilarious. And Ben Walker, who plays Bateman on stage, is as sick as Bale, but strangely likable. Imagine if Bale had done a little dance number after stabbing a victim — not in sick delight but looking at the camera, women in costume matching his every move.
But this change was to be expected. The world has very much come to mirror the once-surreal, offensive, dystopian place imagined by Ellis. It’s no longer satire. And so the jokes are out loud, and the laughter is nervous. When Trump is mentioned, we laugh and we cringe.
In the book and film, the inner thoughts and motivations for Bateman are more confused, and only hinted at, but never fully known. By contrast, in 2016, the gore is no longer shocking enough, and the subject matter no longer perverse enough, to support itself on its own shock value. And so for Broadway, where inner thoughts must become song and dance, we are given a better look inside Bateman.
This begins with the opening scene, in which Ben Walker, lunging in tight white underwear on a tanning bed, extolls his routine — pore-cleansing lotion, water-activated gel cleaner, honey-almond body scrubs, herb-mint facial masque, an after-shave lotion with little to no alcohol — with a smirk. It’s been 25 years since the book was published, and now Bateman, in many regards, shows self-awareness. The audience is in on the joke from the beginning. The blood is turned down. The misogyny has been explored further and better (just watch Peggy Olson in Mad Men). And now instead of being repulsed by him, we’re somewhat sympathetic. Bateman’s no longer just the reflection of the sickest side of Wall Street; he’s America’s mirror. He has trouble controlling himself, he latches on to a marriage to try and save himself, and in the end, it’s all as if it never even happened. The fantasy and reality are different, but isn’t that always the case? When we fantasize about the worst happening to our enemies, and sometimes our friends, are we as bad as Broadway’s Bateman? If anything, he’s just a bit more imaginative, and decisive.
American Psycho gets a successful update for the Broadway stage, with the suit to match. See the style guide.