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Jay Johnson: The Two & Only!
(Brentwood Theater;498 seats; $59 top)
A Richmark Entertainment presentation of a Roger Alan Gindi, Stewart F. Lane, Bonnie Comley, Dan Whitten, Herbert Goldsmith Prods. and WetRock Entertainment production of a performance in one act by Jay Johnson, conceived by Johnson, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel. Directed by Cross and Kreppel. Set, Beowulf Boritt; lighting, Clifton Taylor; sound, David Gotwald; music, Michael Andreas. Opened, reviewed Jan. 23, 2006; runs through Feb. 19. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
With: Jay Johnson
By STEVEN OXMAN
Fate, being fickle, anointed Jay Johnson a ventriloquist, a calling he discovered as a young boy and embraced. “I was born to do this,” says Johnson, pulling the first of several puppets — a scaredy-cat snake — from the myriad suitcases that populate the set of his pleasing one-man show “Jay Johnson: The Two & Only.” He then goes to work giving the creature a voice, the first in a series of highly entertaining, vaudevillian routines he mixes in with his own life story and ruminations on the history and significance of ventriloquism itself.
What most charms is the feeling that Johnson — most famous for his turn on TV series “Soap” — really was born to pursue this strange vocation, and that his puppets seem to bring him fully to life even more than the other way around.
Johnson has a good time telling us about the history of ventriloquism. Before the invention of the telephone and the phonograph — both of which made it possible to “throw” the human voice with technological efficiency — the ancient art was primarily a dark one, a tool of “esoteric occult spiritualists” and con artists.
Johnson’s pretty convincing in his explanation of how the famed Oracle at Delphi, who gave voice to the dead, was most likely a job for a ventriloquist. And in a clever bit, he demonstrates how a good ventriloquist could persuade a superstitious village that a spirit has not yet left the earth.
To their credit, Johnson and his co-conceivers and directors, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, return to such psychological speculation at the end to tie all this together in a consideration of why ventriloquism continues to fascinate.
But while fairly well-crafted, the biographical monologues — with a focus on Johnson’s relationship with his mentor, Arthur Sieving — remain a means of piecing together the stars of the evening, the characters who reside in all those suitcases placed strategically around the stage by set designer Beowulf Boritt.
In addition to the initial snake, Johnson gives comic voice to a particularly sharp-witted vulture, a fun-loving monkey named Darwin (his name, he tells us, “just evolved”), a tennis ball with eyes and, very cleverly, a white board. Each of these characters takes on a highly specific voice and personality. The full force of Johnson’s skill comes through when we realize how easy it is to feel that these are individual beings, companions to Johnson rather than extensions of him.
He has to be considered a generous performer, investing his sidekicks with more charisma than he displays when by himself. The ventriloquist is always the second banana.
The core characters of the evening are the boylike puppets who played the biggest role in Johnson’s career. First, there’s Squeaky, a chubby-cheeked character crafted by Sieving to reflect his handler’s basic innocence. When Johnson got cast in “Soap,” the offer didn’t extend to Squeaky, who was rejected for the satirical sitcom because he was simply too cherubic. In an absorbing sequence, Johnson informs Squeaky of the sad news.
It was, of course, the right move, as his “Soap” alter ego, the abusive Bob, proves an even more engaging foil, starting the insults before Johnson even lets him out of his suitcase. Their rapid-fire back-and-forth never ceases to be funny, even while it educates us on the dangers of plosive consonants such as “b.”
Throughout “The Two & Only,” Johnson urges respect for ventriloquism as an art as opposed to a joke, and the level of his skill makes his case for him.
But while he’s right that an art is a craft perfected, art also requires finding new ways to use an old form. Johnson keeps alive the popular style of stand-up, puppet-bound ventriloquism, and entertains us plentifully while doing so. But while he enlightens with his glance back at history, he doesn’t shine the light into the future.
“The Two & Only” played successfully Off Broadway in 2004, and this appearance at the Brentwood Theater precedes a Broadway run. It’s time for ventriloquism, like the monkey Darwin’s name, to evolve if it is to survive as an art form. Johnson’s show assures us that it should.