- Broadway take on 1991 book inspires self-examination, dread
- `At the end of the day, life is empty,' says an M&A lawyer
Eleven Yale business school students spill out of a Broadway theater after a performance of “American Psycho The Musical.” They’ve just watched a 1980s investment banker sing and chop through a coworker and homeless man and now they’re sorting out what the satire says about the real Wall Street, where some of them are looking for work.
“I hope the traits of Patrick Bateman are not indicative of what I’ll become," said Scott Jacobs, 29. “I actually get offended when people give investment bankers a bad reputation.” Yet, his group nods at the exaggerated portrayal of their lives -- the obsession with business cards, clothes, clubbing at Tunnel and dreams of a table at Dorsia.
A lot has changed in Manhattan since Bret Easton Ellis published his novel in 1991. Back then, the sheer brutality of the homicidal lead character sparked a furor. His role as a mergers and acquisitions specialist at fictional Wall Street firm Pierce & Pierce was more incidental. “Mr. Ellis clearly does not want or expect the reader to identify with Patrick,” a New York Times reviewer wrote. “This Wall Street monster is not a flesh-and-blood character, nor is it a realistic world.”
Of course, the book had captured something real. The finance industry’s excesses were just getting started in the era of laissez-faire Reaganism and Milken junk bonds. They peaked in a credit-market implosion in 2008 that put the world on the precipice of financial collapse. Almost eight years on, Wall Street is mired in a post-crisis malaise. Decades of deregulation ended with taxpayer bailouts, new rules, job cuts, shrinking bonuses and presidential candidates arguing over who will be toughest on surviving banks.
Stefan Shrivastava, who’s pursuing a wealth-management career and organized the Yale outing, said his generation is consciously trying to avoid Bateman’s materialism and self-obsession, popularized for them in a 2000 movie starring Christian Bale.
“More than anything it’s sad, but it’s certainly healthy to get the perspective,” said Shrivastava, 27, who’s seen the film 20 times.
Euan Rellie, co-founder of investment bank BDA Partners, remembers reading Ellis’s book as a young analyst in the early 1990s.
“I should have read it as a cautionary tale,” said Rellie, 48. “I was besotted by the book, absolutely riveted to it, without understanding why it felt incredibly compelling.”
Performances of the musical with a distinctly ’80s beat began March 24 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre. At opening night on Thursday, Lazard Capital Markets’ Jeffrey Rosen and boutique banker Paul J. Taubman were among the invited guests.
“Fantastic,” Taubman, who once ran M&A and the investment bank at Morgan Stanley, said outside the theater after the show. He acknowledged the life depicted rang familiar, but laughed off the suggestion it reflected on today. “It’s a period piece,” he said.
Perhaps because the stage Bateman, as played by Benjamin Walker, comes across as more human, insecure, awkward and angry than the book or film portraits, some in the audience relate to his ennui. He has the trappings of success -- a Harvard degree, a television with freeze frame, fine chardonnay and chums with houses in the Hamptons --and he’s still not happy.
‘Life is Empty’
“You get to Tunnel or Dorsia -- or Verboten and Estela, in our case -- and at the end of the day, life is empty,” said 27-year-old Evan Konstantinou, a corporate lawyer.
Kristopher Zelesky, 27, a headhunter for financial jobs, elaborated. “The first time making six figures, we felt the need to go out and blow a lot of money, and we’re getting to the point like Patrick Bateman, where we don’t want to do it anymore,” he said. “We’re thinking, What is it worth? It’s not like it advanced our lives in any way.”
Money. Status. Identity. Definition (of the pecs and abs variety). And love. In the musical, Bateman’s girlfriend, Evelyn, wants to settle down. “What are you going to do, wait ’til you’re 30?” she asks.
“We were just talking about this at 21 Club, over dinner before the show,” Konstantinou said. “All our friends are getting married. Our girlfriends are broaching the subject.”
How does he feel about it? “This is not an exit,” he says, quoting the title of the final musical number, set at a wedding reception. “Marriage isn’t an answer to the conundrum of life. Murder is hopefully not that either.”
Ellis published the novel when he was 27. He’s now 52.
“The conundrum of Patrick Bateman is, I’m a young man in society, this is what is expected of me, this is what is being extolled at the time, and I reject all of that,” the author said in an interview. “I hate group think, corporate culture, the status quo, but where else am I going to go? Am I going to go live in a cave in the woods?”
At least in 2016, there are socially acceptable, lucrative options for bankers on the brink, from technology startups in Silicon Valley to other destinations on Wall Street.
“Nowadays, someone feeling a little alien at a place like Pierce & Pierce is probably more likely to jump over to private equity than go insane,” said Patrick McCarthy, 23, who works at a boutique investment bank.