Jay Johnson - The Two and Only

The Wall Street Journal

One for the Show

May 21, 2004   By TERRY TEACHOUT

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A friend of mine told her stepmother the other day that she was going to see a one-woman play. "I don't do one-woman plays," the stepmother harrumphed. I do, but I sympathize. Whatever the performer's gender, far too many one-person plays are whiny exercises in autotherapy, unjustified by the deft writing or skillful acting that can sugar the most bitter theatrical pill.

As I recall the various examples of the genre that I've endured in recent seasons, an all-purpose multiple-choice synopsis suggests itself: "Hello, I'm (insert name here), and I'm an (insert victim group here). As a child, I was (groped) (beaten) (humiliated) (treated with insufficient respect for my hitherto undiscovered genius) by my (father) (mother) (teachers) (classmates) (parish priest). When I grew up, I became a (substance abuser) (antidepressant junkie) (sex addict) (serial murderer) (starving actor). Then I joined a support group, underwent years of expensive psychotherapy and wrote this play. Now I get paid to spew forth my pent-up resentment six nights a week. Thanks for coming!"

Must it be so? Jay Johnson proves otherwise in "The Two and Only," now playing at the Atlantic Theater. Mr. Johnson is a ventriloquist (readers with long memories will remember him from the TV series "Soap"), and "The Two and Only" is a show-and-tell reminiscence of his life and work. He loves what he does, and so far as I could tell from "The Two and Only," he is as well-adjusted as a man who talks to wooden dummies can hope to be. What's more, Mr. Johnson is both extremely funny and a super-virtuoso of his mysterious craft. At one point he actually dispenses with props and "throws" his disembodied, wraith-like voice into thin air, a trick so impressive that I'm still agog at the memory of it.

What makes Mr. Johnson's show more than just a blown-up version of a nightclub act is the unassuming warmth with which he tells the story of how and why he became a ventriloquist. I expected to enjoy "The Two and Only," but I didn't expect to be touched, much less to find my eyes growing moist as Mr. Johnson spoke of his close friendship with Arthur Sieving, the ventriloquist-sculptor-mentor who carved Squeaky, his young protege's first professional dummy. It was a Red Skelton-like moment, sweet but not cloying, and all the more affecting for having taken place in this sour age of automatic irony.

As a boy, Mr. Johnson marveled at the witty ventriloquists who frequented the TV variety shows of yesteryear. Those shows are long gone, but Jay Johnson is still here, throwing his voice in all directions and making case-hardened Manhattan audiences laugh themselves silly without resort to cynicism or vulgarity (except for one FCC-disapproved word whose precisely timed detonation caused the audience to laugh so hard that I briefly feared for the roof of the Atlantic Theater). It says in the program that he "dreamed of this one-man show for most of his life." I couldn't be happier that his dream has finally come true.
Copyright 2004