Sweet Jay Johnson and his inner rogues’ gallery
Many years ago, I had the opportunity to work with Shari Lewis and saw first-hand from a few feet away how magical ventriloquism is. I will go to my grave absolutely convinced that a dressed-up sock could talk, and I am probably among the relatively small handful of people who have ever experienced the salty side of Lamb Chop responding to a deal gone south. The magic of this art form is that even close-up, it is absolutely credible that an inanimate object could take on a life and a personality. No wonder, ventriloquism has been seen at various times throughout history as a dark art, form of demon possession, or sign of mental illness.
Once a staple of children’s television, vaudeville, and nightclub acts, ventriloquism has not been seen much in mainstream entertainment lately—perhaps because it requires an uncommon level of skill and dedication more analogous to a concert musician than an “American Idol” hopeful. That’s too bad, because done well, ventriloquism creates a kind of theatrical magic that is uniquely thrilling; and in the hands of someone as brilliant as Jay Johnson it provides a rich, satisfying, funny, and heartfelt evening of theater.
All of that said, I was not prepared for the level of skill and geniality that makes “The Two and Only” such a delightful performance. Johnson has a low-key charm as himself and allows his characters—11 of them in all—to do the heavy lifting where the comedy is concerned.
What makes the show so much fun is that Johnson’s formidable ability as a ventriloquist is secondary to the wonderfully comic and memorable characters he has created and the delightful insights into the art of ventriloquism. Even though the structure of the show falls into the typical one-man genre of telling a life story, the characters give him something to play against and a dramatic arc that is credible and satisfying, much more so than the typical face forward and talk form most of these shows take. As with Martin Short’s show, Johnson puts us back in touch with the best aspects of our own childhoods and finds the perfect theatrical framework for his story, which allows it to have broader resonance.
What we see, ultimately, is the story of a man who is committed to his craft, who has gone from being an outsider as a child to someone who has found a voice and a place for himself in a culture that is not always accommodating or welcoming of those who are different. Yet, one can’t help but have the sense that Johnson’s talent has opened a world to him that is unavailable to more conventional folk. In fact, one of the most moving relationships is with someone who remains unseen—the vaudevillian Art Sieving who came out of retirement to carve Johnson’s first real puppet, Squeaky, when Johnson was 18, and who remained a lifelong friend. The connection of these two men over a shared craft balances and creates a context for the over-the-top antics of some of the puppets, as does Johnson’s simple honesty and charming performance as himself.
It’s a nice balance because the characters definitely—and delightfully—get out of control. Johnson’s characters include everything from a talking tennis ball to a wisecracking vulture to a hyperactive chimpanzee enamored of cheesy jokes; they deliver non-stop comedy ranging from witty to vulgar. The monkey’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is worth the price of admission and then some. The show is a virtuoso performance by a master entertainer, full of variety and surprises; it’s over much too soon.
Directors Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel have orchestrated the evening perfectly; it flows effortlessly, capitalizing on the intelligence, humor, and openhearted material. Beowulf Boritt’s set—a series of cases that surround the stage and Johnson—artfully reflects his many characters, known and as yet unmet, and the sense of his journey. The lighting by Clifton Taylor is subtle and sensitive, and everything comes together to make an extraordinary and enchanted evening.