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The Two and Only

As long as they aren't pointing a gun at you, obsessive people are the most interesting people in the world. In the case of "The Two and Only" star Jay Johnson, who made his bones playing the dual role of Chuck and Bob in the classic TV comedy "Soap," that subject happens to be ventriloquism -- a topic on which this gifted showman is so erudite and amusing that when his time is up, you want to fold him into a suitcase and take him home.

Cast:
With: Jay Johnson.

As long as they aren’t pointing a gun at you, obsessive people are the most interesting people in the world. Wind them up and they can do 90 minutes nonstop on the subject for which they live and breathe. In the case of “The Two and Only” star Jay Johnson, who made his bones playing the dual role of Chuck and Bob in the classic TV comedy “Soap,” that subject happens to be ventriloquism — a topic on which this gifted showman is so erudite and amusing that when his time is up, you want to fold him into a suitcase and take him home.

There are dozens of trunks and suitcases onstage (several of them large enough to accommodate Johnson’s trim frame), stacked on a platform that designer Beowulf Boritt has washed in a deep cerulean blue and swept upward into an infinity-bound parabola. But these containers are all inhabited by dummies (“To be politically correct,” the ventriloquist alerts us, “they prefer to be called ‘wooden Americans’ “) who would presumably resent being displaced. So, better forget that fantasy.

From time to time, the affable performer reaches into one of these boxes and — gently, gently — uncovers a puppet to assist him in his storytelling. Snake, a soft hand-puppet with googly eyes and a big mouth, joins him in a clever, somewhat sadistic routine to make the arcane but fascinating point that, like snakes, early ventriloquists were thought to have the hypnotic power to bend minds. (“My mother made that puppet for me so I could take it with me to high school,” Johnson says, dryly. “She thought I was having trouble fitting in.”)

Long John La Feat, a disembodied head that lives in a wicker basket, helps deliver the nasty news that, in the Dark Ages, a ventriloquist would speak through the mouth of an executed man to hustle money from an uneducated and superstitious populace. (“A well-placed magic trick would look like a miracle to these people,” Johnson gleefully informs us.)

And so it goes, with each puppet wittily advancing another chapter in the dark history of ventriloquism. By the time Johnson picks up his own role in this intriguing narrative of necromancy, divine inspiration and demonic possession, the audience has been well and truly drawn into his obsession and is more than happy to hear how he got his first puppet, how he taught himself to throw his voice and how he eventually broke into big-time showbiz.

Aside from a long and loving tribute to Arthur Sieving, the master ventriloquist who carved Johnson’s first professional dummy, the narrative thread twines around nonhuman characters that pop up on cue to mock, tease and otherwise torment their creator when they think he’s getting too full of himself.

It’s called attitude, and all the puppets have it, although none takes it quite as far as Bob Campbell, the cynical know-it-all who gave his alter ego such a hard time on “Soap.” “What do you do?” he challenges Johnson here. “I mean, how do you make a living? What is your expertise? What is it that you do? What is your job, Jay?”

If there is an underlying message to this offbeat comedy, it is that humans who condescend to lower life forms do so at the risk of being exposed as idiots, should these lower life forms decide to speak up on the matter. “Big deal,” a smartass chimpanzee named Darwin sneers when Johnson shows off his opposable human thumb. “I tell monkey jokes. Simian satire, Rhesus rhetoric, monkey monologues. I’m an animal!”

He’s cute. Let’s throw him into a box and take him home, too.

The Two and Only

Atlantic Theater; 150 seats; $50

Production: An Atlantic Theater Co. presentation, in association with Roger Alan Gindi, Stewart F. Lane & Bonnie Comley, Dan Whitten, Herbert Goldsmith Prods. and Wetrock Entertainment, of a solo performance in one act conceived by Jay Johnson, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, and written and performed by Johnson. Directed by Cross, Kreppel.

Creative: Set, Beowulf Boritt; lighting, Clifton Taylor; music, Michael Andreas; sound, David Gotwald; production stage manager, Lori Ann Zepp. Atlantic Theater artistic director, Neil Pepe. Opened May 13, 2004; reviewed May 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: With: Jay Johnson.

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