Jay Johnson - The Two and Only

USA Today

'Two and Only' goes beyond puppet show


By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Can a seemingly well-adjusted man find his soul mate in an inanimate object? And can that relationship then fuel a consistently entertaining 90-minute program? The answer to both questions is, improbably, yes, as evidenced by Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! (* * * out of four).

Johnson, a veteran ventriloquist best known to TV fans for his stint on the '70s sitcom Soap, arrives on Broadway after a celebrated run at the Atlantic Theatre Company downtown. Still, there's reason to be skeptical that his show, which opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre, could sustain a rapt audience in a somewhat less intimate setting.

There are moments early on, as Johnson rattles off some of the more arcane details and historical tidbits about his art, that you may experience a certain wariness, as if you were trapped in a large room with a particularly avid stamp collector or video-game enthusiast.

But Johnson's unabashed fervor ultimately proves as engaging as his skill. Even his hokier lines — the puppet master refuses to refer to his colleagues as "dummies," he tells us, opting instead for the more politically correct "wooden Americans" — contribute to an endearing lack of pretense. Johnson's earnest refusal to fall back on the contemporary showman's knee-jerk weapon of choice, irony, is refreshing.

Granted, some of his friends, who are made of wood and other fabrics, offer slightly snarkier sensibilities. There's Bob, of course, the smart aleck who was his sidekick on Soap, and Nethernore the Bird of Death, a sassy vulture with a fondness for Frank Sinatra tunes. Darwin the monkey is even more hyperactive and hilarious, evoking a child in need of Ritalin, or perhaps a poster primate for anger-management therapy.

Other characters share more of their creator's sweet nature, particularly Squeaky, the apple-cheeked charmer who first auditioned with Johnson for the role that would make Bob a television star. Squeaky was specifically designed for a young Johnson by Arthur G. Sieving, an accomplished ventriloquist and puppetmaker who became Johnson's champion.