Philippa Kaye with Miranda Torn on screen
in Democracy in America
(© Justin Bernhaut )
Philippa Kaye with Miranda Torn on screen
in Democracy in America
(© Justin Bernhaut )
Director-conceiver-set designer Annie Dorsen lifts the title of her 45-minute playlet, Democracy in America from Alexis de Tocqueville's extraordinarily perceptive and prescient two-volume treatise, published in 1835 and 1840. However, what Dorsen -- just coming off her acclaimed Passing Strange Broadway bow -- has wrought at P.S. 122 is not a stage adaptation of Tocqueville's opinions about the newly-minted country and its eventual development. Instead, this obliquely Tocquevillian take on how democracy -- created in collaboration with Des McAnuff -- manifests itself in the United States today is a series of glib vignettes.

The result is like a tray of spicy hors d'oeuvres passed around as appetizers at a party where dinner is never served. While it's almost consistently amusing, especially as played with puckish fun and unflagging energy by Anthony Torn, Okwui Okpokwasili, and Philippa Kaye, this hodgepodge never delves very deeply in its way into the subject at hand as Tocqueville did. That might have lent it some lasting meaning.

In the course of the fast journey, a number of usually very brief scenes unfold that don't necessarily relate one to the next or the next or the next after that. There's the opening sally when before a projection announcing a first word, the hubby Torn bobs to the middle of the stage and says, "Contrary." He's followed by Kaye, who twirls before another projection announcing a twirl. Both quick occurrences get laughs.

Then, while an upstage light strip streams various somewhat distracting saucy remarks, more skits follow on each other's nimble footsteps. They include a cell phone sequence with audience members asked to aim their own mobiles at the state, a hand-puppet singalong to Cosi Fan Tutte's "in uomini, in soldati," a few references to Bollywood, a couple of Jules Feiffer-influenced dances, a Barbara Kruger-like quote about taking out a checkbook whenever the word "homeland" is mentioned, a failed double-dutch jump-rope attempt, Kaye and Okpokwasili singing The Shirelles' 1962 "Soldier Boy," a travesty of "Que Sera Sera" as "O, Suri Suri" to spoof the commercialization of the much-photographed Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes offspring, and a game of roulette played with an inch-long pistol.

Perhaps the most troubling of the sequences is a video in which a cute little girl (Amanda Torn) is prompted to repeat remarks that slowly become sexually provocative. Though it's clear she doesn't understand much of what she's repeating and though what's she's saying is somewhat obscured by another of the supple Kaye's dances -- this one complete with fans -- the implication that the child is being subtly brainwashed is unmissable.

And while, yes, these segments are meant to poke fun at and deride what democracy has become in this country -- never mind what democracies imposed on other unprepared countries has led to -- there's no getting away from the likelihood that any number of alternative random items would have the same effect. Or lack of effect.

Incidentally, the show, which is being presented in conjunction with The Foundry Theater, has apparently been underwritten by numerous contributors. In the program, all those purchasing -- or providing funds for -- the segments are listed along with the pertinent party's first name and first initial of surname. On the news strip, some of the segments and their cost are also listed. The funny, if obvious, point about the commercialization of America is made. Well, Tocqueville said it: "I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken stronger hold on the affections of men." In putting a price tag on everything in her work, Dorsen certainly gets that on-the-money Tocqueville quote right.