Reviews — From the August 2016 issue

Goodbye to All What?

The return of the Brat Pack

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You can love the Eighties if you weren’t there. If you were there you may have thought there was some sort of magic in the moment, but you just didn’t know what it was. Or you may have thought that what others were calling magic was really dread. Perhaps these takes are not so incompatible. All involve ideas of excitement and risk in a different time, its dominant feature being that it is not now, that we can’t get there from here.

Will the new musical adaptation of American Psycho help us with our thinking? The novel is relentless in its satire, so dogged and detailed in its recording of fashion and food and snobbery that we could be forgiven for thinking of it as a work of manic realism. It’s funny but only when we are not reading it, the way some Coen brothers movies don’t start us laughing till we get home. It seems as if no paragraph goes by without informing us what someone is wearing. Patrick Bateman, who can recount bloody crimes and acrobatic sex acts with admirable calm, almost cries because he may not have a reservation at the right restaurant. (“I’m on the verge of tears by the time we arrive at Pastels since I’m positive we won’t get seated.”) He is not cool enough to keep quiet about his coolness. (“I try to act casual . . . but I’m smiling proudly.”) And in one magnificent passage, a nerdy critical essay on the career of Huey Lewis and the News, we realize that even a professed serial killer can lose himself in the innocence of pedantry. The first album “seems a little too stark, too punk,” the second album offers a “surprising, infectious change,” the third album is a “flawless masterpiece,” and “Small World (Chrysalis; 1988) is the most ambitious, artistically satisfying record yet produced” by the band.

We don’t get all this commentary in the musical, but we do get the music: Bateman kills his rival, Paul Owen, who has committed the unforgivable offense of mistaking Bateman for someone else, to the rousing tune of “Hip to Be Square.” Blood splashes out toward the audience, who are saved from the mess by a convenient clear plastic screen. End of Act I.

Asking how anyone could make a musical out of American Psycho is a bit like asking how you solve a problem like Maria. The show opened in London in December 2013, with Matt Smith as Patrick Bateman. The American version premiered in April 2016, with Benjamin Walker in the title role. Bret Easton Ellis attended a preview, and after what a New York Times reporter described as a hesitant first response, settled down to enjoy himself and laugh a lot. Critics were divided in both cities, along much the same lines. They thought the show was slick and entertaining or — slick and entertaining. The difference was the value they attached to those words. For Variety’s Marilyn Stasio, “The violence is not violent enough.” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, “This psycho is neither scary nor sexy, nor is the show in which he appears.”

I thought the music was pretty tame, both the original 1980s numbers borrowed from Tears for Fears, New Order, the Human League, Phil Collins, and Huey Lewis and the tasteful new material created by Duncan Sheik. Tameness is a liability for a live spectacle (the show ended its Broadway run early, on June 5), but here it’s surely part of the point. Patrick Bateman is a very tame fellow — that’s why he worries so much about his suits and his aftershave. He was certainly scary in his print and film incarnations, but tame fellows often are. The real fear on offer has to do with the link between the frightened socialite and the bloody murderer. Many people rent horror movies from the video store instead of killing people, but Bateman does both — “thirty, forty, a hundred murders,” as he admits to in the confession that ends the story. Or does he?

Mary Harron, the director of the film, said she wanted

to be ambiguous in the way that the book was. . . . I think it’s a failing of mine in the final scene, that I just got the emphasis wrong. I should have left it more open-ended. . . . It makes it look like it was all in his head, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s not.

This is well put. Some of the violence and strange goings-on are in Bateman’s head, whatever version we look at. The question is what “all” means. In one scene, for example, an ATM tells Bateman to feed it a stray cat, and he goes on a wild killing spree borrowed straight from a gangster movie. Here’s what he says in the book:

I’m having a sort of hard time paying attention because my automated teller has started speaking to me, sometimes actually leaving weird messages on the screen, in green lettering, like “Cause a Terrible Scene at Sotheby’s” or “Kill the President” or “Feed Me a Stray Cat,” and I was freaked out by the park bench that followed me for six blocks last Monday evening and it too spoke to me. Disintegration — I’m taking it in stride.

Even Bateman knows this is “in his head,” but what about the rest? If he hasn’t committed a hundred murders, does that mean he has committed none?

I don’t think Harron failed in her emphasis, but I do think we may worry about the wrong things, in the book and the movie and the musical. Is the tale equally scary regardless of whether Bateman has piled up these serial atrocities? If he has, it’s scary that he gets away with it, that no one believes he could have committed these crimes. (That is how people routinely talk about serial killers, who are stereotypically the nice guys next door until we learn that they are not.) And if he hasn’t, it’s scary that a thoroughly conventional, fashion-ridden executive should harbor such a nightmare world in his dreams — all the more so since he is repeatedly seen as indistinguishable from his colleagues. What if they all have such fantasies, and we get to know about Bateman’s because this is his story, not theirs?

How have they solved the problem like Maria? Does the 1980s dread and menace that McInerney evokes, and that Janowitz half hints at, survive in the musical? The show looks terrific: all monochrome, glaring lamps, trapdoors, turntables, moving furniture, snappy group dancing. Benjamin Walker manages to appear discreetly and charmingly implausible in whatever role he plays, self-conscious yuppie or screaming axe murderer. This is quite a feat. It’s not that he winks at the audience or suggests it’s all theater, although that is the effect. He just seems to find all his roles funny.

The show slows down in the second act, and begins to feel like a musical about life in the Hamptons, but the ambiguity of what is really happening is well preserved. It’s true that Bateman can’t really be prancing around in bloodstained clothes without anybody noticing, but all art forms have their figurative freedoms, and what people will and will not notice is one of this story’s great puzzles. Certainly I thought, as the show ended, that Bateman had done much of the killing he claimed to have done, notably of Paul Owen, and that this crime in particular had been covered up by others for reasons of their own, while my wife was sure Bateman had dreamed the whole thing. Two is not a large sample, I know, but it’s a start.

All three works — the memoir, the novel, the show — look back at the past with a certain helpless fascination, as if it just will not come into focus. But the musical does something else, because performers and audience are necessarily living in the present, as readers and writers may or may not be. The great pleasure of the work, as of almost any successful musical, is in what it does with the idea of dance. In this production the actors walk in sync, and when they dance, the stage looks like a well-choreographed gym class (one routine is an actual gym class in the show). These effects don’t turn violence and psychosis into fun or fantasy, nor do they help us to explore them as if Gene Kelly were channeling Dostoevsky. They do, however, suggest that even without great music there’s a lot to be said for the skillful coordination of human bodies in time, for the contagious sense of energy at work that results from it. Synchronization may be a problem in the mechanical modern world: too many people doing the same thing at the same time. This is what Patrick Bateman represents and imagines he is rebelling against. But onstage he dances with the others, looks for no private beat, and faces the music he can’t otherwise bear.

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