Crazy Alive

Benjamin Walker (foreground) and the cast of “American Psycho.” | JEREMY DANIEL
Benjamin Walker (foreground) and the cast of “American Psycho.” | JEREMY DANIEL

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | The best satire has truth at its core. If you want to plumb the source of today’s narcissistically isolated and social media-obsessed culture, where attention is a kind of currency and FOMO (fear of missing out) has recurring emotional costs, look no further than “American Psycho.” Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel has been transformed into a dazzling, trenchant, and darkly delicious musical with a book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik.

The essential question asked by Patrick Bateman is “do I exist and how do I know?” Subsumed in a culture of appearances and consumption, Patrick makes a lot of money in investment banking, but he is essentially a cog in a wheel, creating nothing and contributing less. His frustration and rage drive him into a murder spree as if that offers the only way he can know he is alive.

Never having read the novel or seen the movie, this material was completely new to me, though anyone who was around when the book first came out certainly was aware of the controversy it caused. What’s so captivating about the musical is that it both perfectly encapsulates the novel’s era and comments on contemporary issues. The Walkman has given way to iPhone buds and being seen in the right restaurant has become a count of Instagram followers and likes, but today’s hyper-connected world offers the same alienation — in fact, to a far greater degree — that Patrick suffered from a quarter century ago. It is both shocking and exhilarating to see him take matters into his own hands with rope, knife, and chainsaw.

Sheik’s score is inspired with a wonderful sense of the music of the period, integrating songs such as “Hip to Be Square” and “Don’t You Want Me,” which acquires a fairly sinister aspect in this context. Es Devlin’s set design is appropriately ice cold, and Katrina Lindsay’s costumes pay homage to the period while also working as a cohesive whole. Justin Townsend’s lighting has a chill that reflects Patrick’s internal struggle, and Lynne Page’s choreography is evocative, precise, and powerful.

Then, of course, there is Benjamin Walker as Patrick. He meets the extreme physical challenges of the role with an increasingly intense level of desperation and panic. The tone of the piece shifts gears in the second act, from Grand Guignol to an internal journey for Patrick, but Walker takes us with him, evoking empathy and compassion for his bloodshed and allowing our darker fantasies to unwind.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, notably the men who surround Patrick, including Theo Stockman as Patrick’s superficial colleague, Tim Price, and Drew Moerlein as his nemesis, Paul Owen.

The show recalls another bloody musical about a man lost in his world, “Sweeney Todd.” In both, murder is revenge upon a world that marginalizes and cares nothing for the individual, and its cathartic dramatic power is inescapable. Revenge typically may indeed, as the saying goes, be a dish best served cold, but in the case of “American Psycho,” it’s just plain hot.

AMERICAN PSYCHO | Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 W. 45th St. | Sun.-Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.: Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m. | $67-$147 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., 45 mins., with intermission