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Jay Johnson: The Two and Only

nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 4, 2006

At its sublime best (which is much of the time!), Jay Johnson's one-person show feels emphatically like a double, rather than a single, act: his co-stars—who all live in suitcases, and are made of wood and/or fabric—take on lives of their own, and when they're on stage it's hard not to believe that they're as real and human as the living-and-breathing man who is actually animating them. It's tribute to his elusive art that Bob, the ventriloquist's dummy who was Johnson's partner on the long-running sitcom Soap, actually gets a hand when he makes his first entrance (and Johnson shares a few hilarious anecdotes that ring 100% true about how his colleagues on that TV show often forgot that Bob wasn't an actual person, too).

Johnson is a practitioner of an ancient and, it seems, increasingly rarefied branch of show business; I'd go so far as to say that he's the most famous and accomplished ventriloquist working nowadays. His Broadway show, Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!, teaches us a bit of the history and lore of this exotic art form, along with the performer's own recollections of how he came to love and learn it himself. But mostly The Two and Only! is a showcase of Johnson's extraordinary talent. During the course of it, he brings to life his first professional "partner," Squeaky; a nutty vulture named Nethernore; an equally silly and antic monkey called Darwin; a severed head; a tennis ball; a child's toy snake; Bob; and, perhaps most impressively, a crude drawing of a face that he creates right in front of our eyes on a dry erase board with a black marker. He's so good at what he does that he can explain the scientific underpinnings of his craft at the same time as he illustrates them, and we still believe that the thing he's holding in his hand is doing the talking.

As you would expect, most of the material here is comic, with Johnson often sticking to the standard ventriloquist gambit of playing straight man to a wise-guy dummy (or "wooden American," as Johnson playfully suggests they should be called). That's the Chuck-and-Bob formula that made him famous on Soap, and it's also the format of the uproarious bits he performs with Nethernore and Darwin, the two most appealingly goofy characters in this show. Each of these creatures gets a chance to sing a solo (Sinatra classics both, as it happens), Darwin doing his in monkey language. The comedy is so off-the-wall that that's what we react to; it's only later, as an after-thought, that we realize what a tour-de-force job that Johnson is doing in pulling off this amazingly difficult stuff. And that, I am sure, is why he's so good.

He's also, apparently, a genuinely friendly, sentimental guy, and the parts of the show that recount his acquaintance and then apprenticeship with Arthur Sieving, a one-time vaudevillian who carved Squeaky for Johnson, are authentically touching and moving. Johnson appears to be that rarity—someone who has always done exactly what he most wanted to, and made a career out of it—and there's something inspiring in that, too.

The Two and Only! is fun for kids of all ages and, in its sweetness as well as its unique genre, unlike any other family show in town. Maybe one of the young people who sees it will be inspired—as Johnson himself was some 48 years ago, after seeing radio personalities Big Jon and Sparky at a show in Lubbock, Texas—to take up the mantle of ventriloquism and start mystifying audiences on his or her own.