|JAY JOHNSON: THE TWO AND ONLY!|
It’s not hard to picture Jay Johnson performing his ventriloquist act 10 times a day in theme parks. He did it as a teenager to break into the business, and at 57, the enthusiasm he exudes about his unusual profession still resembles that of an adolescent.
That joie de vivre spills over into the audience of his frenetic one-man, multi-puppet Broadway show, at least when the sunny and still boyish Johnson is manipulating and throwing his voice into his colorful assortment of dummies. He plays straight man to an amusing ensemble that includes Bob, his salty partner on the popular ’70s sitcom Soap; Squeaky, his first custom-made dummy, who was deemed too sweet to be his co-star on the edgy series; a manic, over-the-top ape named Darwin; a jittery boa constrictor; and even a tennis ball.
But this motley gang is only part of the show. Johnson spends a large chunk of his 100-minute, intermissionless performance discoursing about the history of ventriloquism and his own initiation into it. These historical and autobiographical anecdotes have their absorbing moments -- and they’re enchanting in the age of digital special effects -- but Johnson spews out so much information at such rapid-fire pace that it’s a challenge just to grasp it all.
Fortunately, he’s doesn’t overplay the gee-I-was-different-as-a-child angle, and his homage to Arthur Sieving, his mentor and the man who carved Squeaky, resonates. But the show is at its best when he lets his dummies do the talking. Sad sacks or seemingly ferocious creatures minus any bite, they’re a lot like the poor ventriloquist: misunderstood, unappreciated and repeatedly relegated to the fringes.
By Diane Snyder
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Helen Hayes Theatre
240 West 44th Street
New York, NY 10036