Jay Johnson - The Two and Only

New York Post

September 29, 2006
By CLIVE BARNES
Word of (No) Mouth

VENTRILOQUISM isn't for everyone. Most people who want to throw their voices can go ahead and throw them and, for all I care, leave them in the cloakroom, uncollected.

But Jay Johnson, who last night opened his oddly named one-man show "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only" at the Helen Hayes, is, by any reckoning, a very special ventriloquist and a very entertaining one, at that. The secret to Johnson's sweetly diverting evening is his strangely diffident charm - you find yourself really liking the guy - and the sheer quality of his material. I was reminded of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (best remembered these days as the father of Candice Bergen) and his puppet Charlie McCarthy, who 60 years ago were terrific on radio. (Radio, for God's sake! Who ever knew whether that guy's lips moved?)

Significantly, about Bergen and McCarthy, there was always a certain malice between puppet and his human sidekick. They seemed to hate each other. It's a malice that obviously goes with the territory. In a wonderful old English movie, "Dead of Night," Michael Redgrave plays a mad ventriloquist who is murdered by his own puppet.That demonic possession is something we secretly look for in ventriloquists, and Johnson's guileless, unwary charm makes this dangerous quality all the more compelling.

OK, his animated tennis ball is a delight, while a cartoon face, which Johnson draws and brings to life before your eyes, is a feat of sheer virtuosity. But it's when the puppets get nasty, such as with a singularly mean and obstreperous monkey called Darwin, that the creatures take on that deathly and fascinating life of their own. Here and there, Johnson waxes too sentimental in his reminiscences, and while his fascination with the mystic history of ventriloquism is certainly interesting, his moments of autobiography - years ago he starred in the TV series "Soap" - are perhaps a moment or two too many.

Still, all in all, this is a surprising, and extremely funny, one-man show that has a character to it and more than a few characters in it.