If Martin Short hadn’t already patented the definition this season, “a solo show with other people in it” might be a good way to describe “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only.” OK, so the other people are puppets, a severed head, a tennis ball and a white sketch board brought to life with a Magic Marker, but Johnson so persuasively and lovingly animates the inanimate that the Helen Hayes’ stage seems populated by multiple personalities. The performer’s balance of historical and personal reflection helps make this rather slight show a charming dissertation on the vaudevillian art of ventriloquism.
Full disclosure: For this reviewer, ventriloquists are right up there on the creepiness scale with clowns, mimes, Victorian doll collectors and Tom Cruise. From the Vincent Price-type voice intoning the pre-show cell-phone announcement to the spooky strains of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” heard throughout, Johnson seems fully aware this is a common attitude toward a skill once labeled “a wickedness lurking in the human belly.”
Historically equating the art with demon possession and necromancy, he points out Satan was the first ventriloquist, throwing his voice to the snake in the Garden of Eden to condemn mankind.
The unassuming Johnson also seems to recognize that shoving your hand up the keister of a dummy (he prefers the P.C. term wooden-American) is a nerd’s passion. Alternative acts have put a new spin on most entertainment forms, but ventriloquism remains stubbornly unhip (unless Triumph the Insult Comic Dog counts) — perhaps trapped forever in an era that vanished with Edgar Bergen and Shari Lewis. Part of what makes “The Two and Only” engaging despite all this is Johnson’s unapologetic defense of his arcane calling.
The writing is old-fashioned and the humor a little hoary, but there’s a sweet, self-effacing quality to Johnson’s unforced stage manner, magnified by his willingness to play second fiddle whenever he has a puppet in hand. Those co-stars are liberated from a jumble of suitcases, boxes and baskets spread across an expanse of blue that extends heavenward in Beowulf Boritt’s simple set, which hints that the dummies have both a life and an afterlife.
Johnson’s historical recap and his insights into the basics of ventriloquism (plosive consonants, particularly Bs, are a danger zone) are reasonably absorbing, but the show is at its best when he pays touching tribute to his mentor, Art Sieving. The Chicago ventriloquist and puppetmaker carved Johnson’s first significant professional partner, Squeaky.
The producers of ABC’s hit late-’70s comedy “Soap” cast Johnson but deemed Squeaky too benign-looking to be his character’s belligerent puppet sidekick, Bob. The tender scene in which Johnson informs Squeaky he’s been passed over for the once-in-a-lifetime breakthrough is a lovely moment. However, the rejected puppet’s confinement to his case for the rest of the show seems at odds with Johnson’s affectionate regard for Squeaky as his Stradivarius.
Bob gets an extended outing, smugly explaining that his job — supplying the comedy — is clear, while Jay’s is more of a mystery. Also featured is Amigo, a faint-hearted boa constrictor from Johnson’s high school years; Nethernore, a buzzard who grandiloquently describes himself as the bird of death; and Darwin, a frisky ape who does a shrieking simian version of “Send in the Clowns.”
It’s all agreeable enough under co-conceivers Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel’s tidy direction and, at least from row F, there’s no faulting Johnson’s technique. But despite its low-key appeal, “The Two and Only” feels more like superior club entertainment than a Broadway vehicle — a nostalgic nod to a once-popular variety-show staple rather than a convincing claim for its ongoing vitality. The open-ended New York engagement is planned as a prelude to a national tour; more intimate houses likely will prove a better fit.