In 1985, when Bret Easton Ellis burst onto the best-seller list with his first novel, Less Than Zero, he was just 21 years old. The novel’s corrosive account of debauchery among privileged Los Angeles teens touched a nerve with the New Wave generation, and, in the wake of its success, Ellis plunged into the heart of another, even more decadent situation — New York City in the 1980s.
Welcomed at every chic new restaurant and lured nightly to drug-fueled parties that lasted until after the sun came up, Ellis encountered a world where the provocative transgressions of his high school and college chums paled in comparison to the escapades of an even more uninhibited generation of privileged adults.
The inspiration for American Psycho, which remains his best-known work, came at a private dinner party in the late ’80s featuring a guest list drawn from Wall Street’s young elite. Looking around and listening to his amped-up companions as they speed-talked about fashion, money, and sex, Ellis reimagined the manuscript he had been working on as the diary of a serial killer.
The rest is history, or at least publishing and censorship history. Simon & Schuster dropped Ellis after seeing the final draft, and although Vintage published the book in the United States as a paperback original in 1991, the first hardcover edition in this country didn’t come out until 2012. Outcry against the book’s coolly cynical satire mistook the representation of homicidal misogyny for the real thing — an understandable error. It’s still only available to those 18 years of age and over in Australia and New Zealand, a situation that Ellis has described as “adorable.”
The fortunes of American Psycho took a distinct turn in 2000, when Mary Harron’s film version, starring Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, became an unexpected success, earning praise as a “horror comedy classic” from the New York Times’ Stephen Holden. The film gave visceral life not only to the gratuitous gore of the novel, but perhaps more effectively to its wicked japes at the popular music of the period. Bateman famously performs an elaborate critical evaluation of the music of Huey Lewis and the News as prelude to one grisly sequence.
It was this connection, between the apparent innocence of ephemeral ’80s pop and the ironic spectacle of graphic violence, that triggered Ellis to begin a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 with the goal of funding a stage musical version of American Psycho. After enlisting the considerable talents of Duncan Sheik, who wrote the music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit Spring Awakening, the Psycho musical team gained momentum. Runs in London and New York were short, but the appetites of fans of off-center musicals was whetted for exactly what’s happening here in Santa Barbara at Center Stage Theater November 15-24. That’s when Out of the Box Theatre Company will present its production of American Psycho, the musical.
For two weekends — Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. — Patrick Bateman will work out, dress for dinner, oh, and murder people, all to a throbbing electronic soundtrack featuring versions of some of the best-known hits of the period. Tyler Matthew Burk is Bateman, and Renee Cohen is Evelyn Williams, his girlfriend. The large cast, which includes Out of the Box veterans Zachary Thompson as Luis Carruthers and Deborah Bertling as Pat’s mom, has been rehearsing the show’s original choreography by Chloé Roberts for weeks, and singing their hearts out under the musical direction of Kacey Link.
For Samantha Eve, the producer-director behind every Out of the Box show, this one offers a chance to revisit New York, the place where she attended college (NYU) and where she continually returns for musical theater inspiration. It’s a mixed-up, shook-up world that’s portrayed in this show, and if that content advisory doesn’t give you pause, consider this: Patrick Bateman’s original ’80s idol was none other than Donald Trump. —Charles Donelan
4•1•1 | American Psycho runs November 15-24, at Center Stage Theater (751 Paseo Nuevo). Call 963-0408 or see outoftheboxtheatre.org.