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‘American Psycho’ musical review: Now with a blood ‘splash zone’

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Americans just can’t stop obsessing about serial killers, from the true crime likes of Dahmer and Bundy to fictional counterparts like Hannibal and Dexter.

Firmly in the latter canon, of course, is “American Psycho’s” Patrick Bateman, who first came on the scene in Bret Easton Ellis’s relentless, divisive novel, and got pushed further into public consciousness courtesy of Christian Bale’s memorable movie performance in 2000. Come 2013, Bateman improbably got the musical theater treatment (first in London, then later on Broadway for only 54 official performances, both to mixed reviews), courtesy of “Spring Awakening” composer and ’90s “Barely Breathing” one-hit wonder Duncan Sheik — and now, more than a decade later, Alexandria’s youthful, vibrant Monumental Theatre Co. is giving that rendition its D.C. premiere (and it’s only been staged nationally once, in Chicago, since Broadway).

“American Psycho” takes place largely in the mind of finance bro Bateman (Kyle Dalsimer), who spends his evenings abusing, maiming and murdering homeless men, prostitutes, neighbors, even co-workers. Despite this, most of his mental real estate gets devoted to detailed facts about pop music, luxury clothing brands, skin care, fitness, and ’90s modernist cuisine. He’s status-focused to a fault, and while the work’s clinical sadism isn’t for everyone, its satire of a certain type of cocaine-fueled climber, murderer or not, is undeniably sharp.

The answer to “Why now?” for this particular production isn’t immediately obvious (it’s worth noting Bateman’s idolization of then-finance mogul Donald Trump plays a little differently these days), but it’s an intriguing ride to discover what director Michael Windsor and the cast does with the provocative work. Their approach is immersive: the small black-box theater has been transformed into New York City’s Tunnel nightclub; there’s no live band, but there’s a DJ on hand (music director Marika Countouris) helping to “spin” the recorded backdrop (this decision, which Countouris’s notes ground in Bateman’s embrace of recorded music over live, leads to occasional volume and balance issues).

Actors weave their way through cocktail tables surrounding the small stage platform, and lighting cues urge audience members to temporarily relocate to make room for the action. We’re even urged to cover our shoes with disposable booties, in case we get seated in a blood-spatter “splash zone.”

The splash warnings are a little exaggerated — I’m not sure what it says about me that I expected more blood, especially in the first act’s chilling, strobe-lit climax (or that I jotted down notes like “crucifixion scene artfully executed” — hey, it’s a weird show). But even for the desensitized, parts of “American Psycho” are undeniably disturbing. There’s the gross-out factor — Bateman squishes eyeballs, drills into flesh and plays with entrails — but hardest to watch are two scenes depicting the violent degradation, abuse, and eventual murder of two sex workers.

Dalsimer makes for a remarkable Bateman — he’s suitably menacing, offers a strong, guttural vocal performance and particularly excels at drawing the humor and magnetism out of the character’s deadpan observations. His charisma (contrasted with the vapidity of Bateman’s surrounding social circle) is effective in generating an uncomfortable amount of empathy for a merciless psychopath. He’s surrounded by several formidable supporting performances, particularly Kaeli Patchen as lovesick secretary Jean, and Sydne Lyons in a handful of roles, including Bateman’s distant mother. Only Jordyn Taylor’s exaggerated performance as Evelyn, Bateman’s chattering girlfriend, feels out of sync with the rest of the players.

Sheik is adept at capturing a clubby, period-appropriate synth feel with his score, though his original songs get weighed down by some clunky lyrics (“you’re such a card” in a song devoted to … business card specs; the rhyming of “city” and an expletive elsewhere). The score could use some trimming, especially as outside voices keep trying to humanize Bateman.

While not technically a jukebox musical, “American Psycho” weaves some ’80s hits into the mix; a harmony-driven rendition of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” proves particularly haunting. Ahmad Maaty’s choreography brings zesty energy to the table, influenced by break dancing, club-gyrating and even aerobics, though there are occasional clumsy moments of execution.

Should “American Psycho” be a musical? It’s an interesting experiment, Broadway’s done less with more intuitive source material and Monumental’s cast demonstrates an admirable commitment to the work. Unfortunately, Sheik’s songs, to borrow from Bateman’s beloved Huey Lewis, lean a little more square than hip.

American Psycho, through July 21 at the Ainslie Art Center in Alexandria, Va. About 2½ hours, including an intermission. monumentaltheatre.org.

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