Jay Johnson - The Two and Only

New York Times

A Ventriloquist Explains It All, Humorously and Touchingly

Jay Johnson is not full of himself. But in his knock-'em-dead show, "The Two and Only," at the Atlantic Theater in Chelsea, he is full of everyone else. A dozen wildly improbable characters spring to life through his zipped lips, not counting voices rising from the basement, floating from the wings or muttering startlingly right next to our ears. This is one of the funniest shows of the year, but it is rich in much more than laughter.

Mr. Johnson won cult status as the ventriloquist Chuck with his smart-aleck wooden sidekick, Bob, on the ABC sitcom "Soap" in the late 1970's, but he is also a master puppeteer. His people dolls are more animated by passion than he is, and his animals and objects are transcendent spirits. A boa writhes in anxiety for fear Mr. Johnson will reveal he's a snake. Nethernore, a vulture, is chagrined because everyone laughs when he tries to nauseate them, but he sings a vulture's version of "My Way" that you will never forget. A tennis ball bouncing out from the backdrop becomes a pop-eyed skeptic who refuses to believe that all those voices flitting around are Mr. Johnson's.

An acrobatic chimpanzee reduces evolution to comedy with a series of irresistibly tasteless jokes as he vocalizes an astonishing range of jazz riffs, ending with a hilarious simian aria that shimmies up and down a few octaves while Mr. Johnson's face is stone still.

To show us how he does it all, Mr. Johnson draws sound waves with a marking pen on a thin plastic sheet a foot square and turns the waves into a face that moves its eyes as it begins to speak and then in a resounding baritone sings "I Ain't Got No Body." As always when he explains his magic, Mr. Johnson leaves us baffled.

His real secret is that he is a gifted storyteller. The story is his autobiography, which he calls a dream. It begins and ends with an old master who made Mr. Johnson's first puppet and in death bequeathed his own trademark puppet to him. That ending is so emotionally charged it should backfire. But the storyteller gives it a twist so surprising that the audience jumps up cheering.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company