Written and Performed by Jay Johnson
Conceived by Jay Johnson, Murphy Cross, Paul Kreppel
Directed by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel
Atlantic Theatre Co. / 336 West 20th Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

I was just doing online research on tabletop dishwashers for my apartment, and reading as many customer reviews as I could stand. (By the way, if you’re interested, there are none made by major US manufacturers, and of the lower profile brands, the Danby [of Canada] edges out the Haier [of China] by a few points, neither seems to last more than 18 months and none of the others are remotely worth thinking about.) Anyway, you start to surfeit on the crude style of these customer "e-pinions" after a while, with their phrases in caps like "DON’T BUY THIS PIECE OF JUNK!" and "UTTER WASTE OF TIME!" and my favorite, "THE ONLY THING THIS WILL CLEAN IS YOUR WALLET" reverberating in your head like unstoppable tape loops.

And along with those there are the good ones, that go like, "BUY THIS PRODUCT!" And I have to admit, as I turn my attention to reviewing Jay Johnson’s rumination on being a ventriloquist, I have this giddy desire to simply write in caps, "GO! GO TO SEE THIS EVENT! WHAT A GREAT DEAL!"

Because, honest-to-Pete, folks, that’s the most important thing I can say. I don’t think it would be hyperbolic to add that this is maybe the most magical theatrical evening of the season (maybe several seasons) and unlike the equally fanciful puppetry of "Avenue Q", that of Mr. Johnson is suitable for the entire family, and I mean that in the best sense, neither kids nor adults will feel shortchanged. (All right, small advisory: Mr. Johnson employs the lightest possible sprinkling of cuss words—maybe five, tops—in the interests of a good laugh, and unlike many of his colleagues in the world of stand-up comedy, he picks his battles VERY carefully, and the use is never gratuitous. And it’s nothing much your kids haven’t already heard on "The Simpsons" anyhow.)

Jay Johnson is the fellow whose biggest fame comes perhaps from the sitcom "Soap" in which he played the mild-mannered Chuck who seemed so manipulated by his hostile ventriloquist’s dummy Bob. His pageboy haircut and ever-youthful appearance belie an anarchic, edgy sense of humor, and one of the most devastatingly sophisticated masteries of puppetry technique a ventriloquist has ever displayed.

It’s not just his understanding of the subtleties of the control rod, back of a "traditional" dummy, that amaze and amuse; other first-rate "voice throwers" have done as well—it’s what he does with the hand-and-arm puppets: it’s that astonishing ability to give Nethernore, the vulture ("…of DEATH!" as the bird likes to remind us) and Darwin the ape (whose catch-phrase is: "MONKEY JOKE!") an extravagant physical life, all the while maintaining the illusion of his own physical separateness and independence. In some ways, that’s even more imagination boggling than the voice work itself. And needless to add, the voice work and the versatility of voices puts Mr. Johnson right up there in the ranks of Paul Frees, Mel Blanc, Maurice LaMarche and—of course—his confrere in ventriloquism, Paul Winchell.

What further elevates "The Two and Only" is how touching its biography is. The bits are way stations marking the progress of his story, from the five year old kid getting stage struck, through adulthood and the passing of his mentor, ventriloquist and puppet builder Arthur Sieving. (The stories about Art Sieving and Harry O’Shea alone are worth the price of admission? Who’s Harry O’Shea? Can’t you guess? Harry O’Shea was Sieving’s puppet partner.) As well, Mr. Johnson gets into the fascinating science and history of the art. Yes, in its subversive way, "The Two and Only" is genuinely educational too.

Because we used to share the same manager, I have a passing acquaintance with one of the evening’s co-directors, the very funny Paul Kreppel (the other is Murphy Cross and they both co-conceived the show with Mr. Johnson) and as I was leaving the Atlantic Theatre (among a crowd of VERY happy patrons), he was passing out flyers, "It’s a word-of-mouth show," he kept repeating, "It’s a word-of-mouth show."

Fair enough.

Forget that I’m a critic. Here’s my online customer review: GO! GO! SEE THIS THING! MORE THAN ONCE! YOU’LL WANT TO! BRING ALONG EVERYONE YOU LOVE!

And after you do, spread the word.

Don’t be afraid to move your lips…

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