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A Moon for the Misbegotten

Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!

The famed ventriloquist proves he's no dummy by putting on an extremely entertaining and sometimes tearfully poignant show.

By New York City
Jay Johnson with Nethernore
in Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!
(© Carol Rosegg)
Jay Johnson with Nethernore
in Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!
(© Carol Rosegg)
The show's title may be Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!, but Johnson puts on a one-man show that seems as fully populated as The Jerry Lewis Telethon. Perhaps the country's best known ventriloquist -- primarily for his role on the 1970s sitcom Soap -- Johnson has a whole legion of "wooden American" co-stars. They emerge out of boxes and baskets that are artfully and strategically strewn across the stage and arranged against the back wall of the Helen Hayes Theatre.

In this sense, the show's title is far too modest; but there's nothing modest about Johnson's talent. More to the point, this production shows off his skills within the context of a graceful autobiographical arc that is packed with laugh-out loud comedy and tearful poignancy. The show has moved to Broadway essentially intact from its acclaimed 2004 Off-Broadway presentation at the Atlantic Theater Company; it was supposed to have come to the Helen Hayes last season but found itself in a holding pattern thanks to the huge success of Bridge & Tunnel. Now that Johnson has finally arrived, you can be sure that he will be in residence on Broadway for a very long time. After all, this is a family-friendly show that parents may well love even more than their kids.

Johnson starts things off with a fascinating history of ventriloquism, then smoothly segues into his own personal story. He has an easy, charming, engaging manner that makes him seem less like a carnival attraction and more like your wildly talented kid brother. This impression is strengthened when he recalls his childhood and the way he always turned to his older brother to find out if his parents were telling him the truth. We learn how Johnson was captivated by the art of ventriloquism; he developed his talents as a kid working the local party circuit in Abernathy, Texas and, later, as a teenaged professional earning valuable experience by putting on shows at a theme park.

As a work of art -- and "art" is a word that comes to have great significance in The Two and Only -- the show finds its anchor in the relationship between this young, budding showman and Arthur Sieving, a retired ventriloquist in Springfield, Illinois whose name Johnson finds in a catalogue. The then 17-year-old Johnson asks Sieving to carve for him his own personal wooden ventriloquist's puppet. Though the 70-year old man demurs at first, he finally agrees to make a partner for the boy. The puppet aside, it's the relationship between Sieving and Johnson that gives this fast-paced, intermissionless entertainment its emotional heft.

Eventually, we meet Squeaky, the puppet that Sieving created. Later, we witness the funny and touching scene wherein Johnson must tell him that their audition together for the TV show Soap was successful only for one of them -- because Squeaky was deemed to be "too nice" for the show. Instead, Johnson became a TV star as the voice behind a nasty puppet named Bob. We learn that this name was chosen by someone who knew nothing about ventriloquism; the letter "B" is "implosive" and forces one to move ones lips to say it! (There's a hilarious sequence in which enormous pains are taken to avoid the letter "B.")

Every character Johnson pulls out of a basket or a box -- and even one that rolls onto the stage, a split-open rubber ball named Spalding -- comes to comic life in one topping bit after another. We meet a nutty vulture named Nethernore, a wild and crazy monkey named Darwin, and more, all of whom have a life and voice that seems distinctly their own.

Conceived by Johnson, Murphy Cross, and Paul Keppel, and unobtrusively directed by the latter two, the production tells a story that makes it feel decidedly more like a genuine show than a nightclub act. We should note that when the show was playing Off-Broadway, everyone sat close enough to the stage to be able to witness that Johnson really doesn't move his lips. Transferring the show to Broadway, even to the small Helen Hayes, may reduce the sense of wonder felt by those sitting at the back of the house. Perhaps that's why Johnson performs one bit with tape over his mouth. After all, he's no dummy!


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