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Review: ‘American Psycho’ boldly blends the scary with the sardonic

Benjamin Walker, center, and the cast during a performance of "American Psycho," opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York.

Benjamin Walker, center, and the cast during a performance of “American Psycho,” opening at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York.

(Jeremy Daniel / Jeffrey Richards Associates)
Los Angeles Times Theater Critic

In “Sweeney Todd,” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler proved that laughter in a musical could make the adrenaline pump harder. Funny, it turned out, didn’t have to be the nemesis of fear.

A trickier combination is being attempted in “American Psycho,” the clever new Broadway musical based on Bret Easton Ellis’ satiric slasher of a novel. Creators Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik blend the scary with the sardonic in a production that lethally wins style points even when making the most fiendish mess with a hatchet.

The murderous mayhem may not induce much terror — when the blood comes, it’s as art directed as a Halloween window at Barneys — but the competitive consumerism of homicidal dandy Patrick Bateman and his yuppie crowd is positively hair-raising.

The production, which had its official opening on Thursday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, has the electronic verve of a Human League music video and the glossy visual enticement of a GQ photo spread.

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Director Rupert Goold, whose Broadway staging of “Macbeth” with Patrick Stewart gave the Scottish play a chic culinary update, exploits Gen X nostalgia for the ‘80s with an ambiguous wink. His production sends up the zeitgeist in a playful manner that has a menacingly seductive appeal.

The slick theatrical packaging of the musical, which had its premiere at London’s Almeida Theatre in 2013, invites us to map today’s gilded era onto this retro tale. The designer names may have changed, but the greed-is-good sentiment remains the same.

If the show doesn’t possess a soul — and how could it with a protagonist whose hobby, scheduled around fine dining, high-end shopping and cocaine-infused clubbing, is carving up women’s body parts? — it at least makes the most of its killer attitude.

Front and center in his tighty-whities is Benjamin Walker as Bateman, the 26-year-old Wall Street narcissist with a body sculpted like a Calvin Klein model recruited straight out of boot camp. To introduce himself, Bateman fills us in on his beauty secrets, ticking off the products (chilled eye mask, honey-almond body wash, exfoliating spearmint gel, etc.) that are part of his daily regimen.

Benjamin Walker in a scene from "American Psycho."

Benjamin Walker in a scene from “American Psycho.”

(Jeremy Daniel / Jeffrey Richards Associates)

Walker, who played the title role in the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” as an emo rock star, has an uncanny ability to theatrically embody the thematic essence of a show. When he dons one of Bateman’s expensive suits, you can practically feel his nerve endings delighting in the brush of the exquisite fabric. (Katrina Lindsay’s costumes offer a teasing catalog of conspicuous consumption.)

The best numbers in the first act divide along gender lines. In the zingy “Cards,” Bateman and his male cronies compete over who has the most impressive business cards. When cocky Paul Owen (a charismatically supercharged Drew Moerlein) bests Bateman with his graceful lettering and quality of stock, it’s clear his days are numbered, though the way he muscularly handles Lynne Page’s tabletop choreography, you pray he’ll get more stage time.

The women have their own rocking hymn to superficiality. In “You Are What You Wear,” Bateman’s girlfriend Evelyn (Heléne Yorke), a Paris Hilton precursor, and his pill-popping mistress, Courtney (Morgan Weed), lead their female posse on a whirlwind tour of fashion labels. “No, there’s nothing remotely ironic/ about our love of Manolo Blahnik,” they chant in the manner of Upper East Side sorority bullies. Yorke and Weed deliver slinky cartoons in overpriced cocktail dresses.

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Sheik, the indie singer-songwriter who won a Tony for his score for “Spring Awakening,” is the right composer for “American Psycho.” His songs infuse a little alternative-rock emotion into the new wave pastiche and period pop parody, both of which he excels at.

The score is enlivened by artfully arranged covers of ‘80s pop classics, including Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Hip to Be Square” turns out to be the perfect song to mask the screams of a man being bludgeoned to death.

Aguirre-Sacasa, who was part of the team brought in to rescue the Broadway fiasco “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” picks up on what worked best in the 2000 movie adaptation of Ellis’ novel starring Christian Bale. The banter of Bateman’s band of foodie fops, all of whom would kill for a reservation at the Dorsia, isn’t just comic relief from the suspense of his late-night criminal escapades — it’s the satiric heart of the work.

Holly James and Benjamin Walker in a scene from "American Psycho."

Holly James and Benjamin Walker in a scene from “American Psycho.”

(Jeremy Daniel / Jeffrey Richards Associates)

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The carnage is contained in the first act, leaving us more time to laugh at Theo Stockman’s lockjaw delivery of Timothy Price’s snootiness and the homoerotic bumbling of Jordan Dean’s Luis Carruthers. Holding back on the killing allows us also to get better acquainted with Bateman’s jittery secretary, Jean (a winning Jennifer Damiano), and to meet his formidable mother, Mrs. Bateman (a small part given theatrical heft by the powerhouse Alice Ripley in one of her several roles).

It seemed a shame that Es Devlin’s pristine white-box set, a perfect medium for Finn Ross’ fashionably frenetic video design, would have to be defiled by Bateman’s sadistic tantrums. But when the blood comes, it splatters with a Jackson Pollock vengeance.

A major casualty in all of this is the musical’s witty exuberance. The thriller story line (which didn’t exactly have me breaking out in a cold sweat) snuffs out the fun.

Walker spends much of the second act wandering around with his white briefs and six-pack abs smeared in red. The other characters don’t seem to notice, suggesting that Bateman is operating in a fugue state, but it’s hard to reconcile, never mind care about, these conflicting realities.

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Ellis’ game of making Bateman an untrustworthy narrator is awkwardly handled here. The second act is spent at cross-purposes. Aguirre-Sacasa tries to involve us in Bateman’s inner life (the character’s forbearance in victimizing his infatuated secretary suggests he’s not a total monster) while making us fear what he might do next. Neither effort is entirely successful.

As to the question of whether Bateman is a psycho in reality or just in his own mind, the show’s authors want to leave all possibilities on the table. But an explanatory final number, “This Is Not Me,” winds up saying too much (“Maybe this schism/is just a symptom/ of late capitalism”) and nothing at all (“Even if this story/seems overwrought and gory/it’s not a fable/not an allegory”).

The emptiness at the heart of “American Psycho” is the source of both its originality and its eventual tediousness. What succeeds as satiric comedy falters when the mood turns more serious. But when the show works, it does so with tremendous flair. This isn’t another “Sweeney Todd,” but its sharp style lifts it above the mercenary rung of most musicals spun from pop cultural ephemera.

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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