Written and Performed by Jay Johnson
Directed by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel
Zero Arrow St., presented by the ART
Mass. Ave & Arrow St, Harvard Sq. Camb. / (617) 547-8300
Through Aug. 6

Reviewed by Will Stackman

A solo show by and about any theatre personality can easily become self-indulgent. One about a ventriloquist adds the option of multiple personality to the possibilities, Jay Johnson's solo show "The Two and Only" is flirts with both. On the one hand, it's the basic small-town American breaks into show-business success story. On the other it's an almost Absurdist peek into the mindset of a ventriloquist, that species of puppeteer whose childhood imaginary friends grow up to be their performing partners. Johnson, along with his directors Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, has created a script which includes the history of the art of ventriloquism from its presumed roots in necromancy, his career including the stint on T.V.'s "Soap" and his relationship to his mentor Art Sieving, backed up by a strong sampling of routines with various puppets. These include Nethermore the Vulture, a sock puppet snake, a rowdy monkey, and his original partner, Skippy. Bob, from the TV show "Soap" appears of course, but seems much less relevant, less a partner than a confrontation. As the pieces fall into place, Johnson's life so far has a kind of completeness.

The show has an interesting set design by Beowulf Boritt, whose work was recently seen on Broadway for "The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee." The stage is littered with various old suitcases and trunks with the floor merging into the backdrop with the same motif. Its various ingenious features are only fully revealed by the end along with Cliff Taylor's lighting design. Suffice it to say that seemingly incidental ideas achieve resonance as the performance progresses. What start out as somewhat dry explanations of the history of ventriloquism become directly related to Johnson's career. His voice characterizations are subtle when need be, but it's his careful puppetry that makes him, along with other current performers such as Jeff Dunham and Ronn Lucas, a master of this ancient form. The best current ventriloquists have moved beyond the "dummy on my lap" approach. Michael Andreas's original score provides bridges as his story progress.

Jay's spent most of his career on the nightclub and college circuit, so his rapport with the audience is earnest and easy. He's there to share. Behind the eternal kid with a dummy there's an interesting worldview and a story to tell. Ventriloquism goes in and out of fashion, with high points such as the career of Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy or the early days of television. Like various variety specialties, the art of "belly speaking" can always find a home in nightclubs and cabaret, along with the unique professional acts sprinkled among the amateurs on this summer's TV "talent" shows. For example, the one new ventriloquist seen so far is actually a fulltime performer at Legoland.

This show, a 70 minute monologue, which ran off-Broadway last season, has had an extensive shakedown on the West Coast. True to Johnson's life, it's clearly ready for travel so that its upcoming Broadway run may be a climax, but will hardly be an end. Its autobiographical elements make it unique, moving the piece into the realm of theatre, with Jay's selection of partners display a range of wit beyond the usual patter. This is a well-written show, tightly choreographed, which nevertheless less has a kind of improvisation freshness and only a few cliched routines, always appropriate.

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