Theater Review: JAY JOHNSON: THE TWO AND ONLY (Tour)

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by Milo Shapiro on April 21, 2019

in Theater-Regional,Tours


Ventre Loqui: To speak from the belly. This is the etymology of the word ventriloquism, an art as old as … well, it depends who you ask. For some, there is no older art, as it was the trick of the devil to make the snake appear to speak to Eve. And from such roots, the ancient, controversial technique finds its way into history, sometimes with evil overtones.

As a small-town Texas boy, Jay Johnson had no peers to share his passion. He only knew that he could do it and that it made people laugh. From there, there was no other interest that came close. In his one-man show, The Two and Only (which has toured since Johnson won a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event on Broadway) we come to learn — nay, watch — how this young boy finds his way into a small, disperse community of other amazing entertainers. In particular, we share in his discovery of his mentor of many years, Art Sieving. Jay tells us about this sweet man who also craved connection through ventriloquism: “He was 71 and I was 18 … and we were exactly the same age.” It was Art who introduced him to Squeaky, his wooden friend and stage partner for the better part of 50 years.

Jay takes us through his early years of passionate yearning for stage time whenever and wherever he could get it, all the while interspersing performances with some of the puppets who served him (or perhaps, vice versa) in those years. About half the show is a blend of ventriloquism history leading into Jay’s life story; the other half is hilarious conversations with the variety of friends that come to life upon his arm, including a snake, a vulture, a big-eyed tennis ball, and a very hyper gorilla. And of course, there’s Squeaky, Jay’s truest partner in performance for decades.

But let’s face it: Those of us who know Jay know him primarily for one bright burst of public awareness for four years. From 1977 to 1981, Jay was the voice and life of the acerbic, often-cruel puppet Bob on the brilliant ABC sitcom, Soap. Sure, Jay was there, too, playing Chuck, the older son of Burt Campbell (Richard Mulligan) but Chuck was merely a vehicle for the all-too-real Bob, who freely spoke “his” mind about whatever crossed it, from racist comments about Benson the butler (Robert Guillaume) to outright blatant lust for Jessica’s (Katherine Helmond) breasts. To our nostalgic delight, Bob is present in this show as well.

In addition to the masterful voice control, the comedy writing for the puppets is top notch, yielding great laughter at North Coast Rep in San Diego. Beyond the comedy, Jay’s story is uplifting, courageous, and heartwarming  — particularly in a scene where he has to break the news to Squeaky that he got the part of Chuck but that Squeaky did not land the job of Bob because he was too sweet looking. Learning from such a master, we leave honoring his craft while being thoroughly entertained by his creations and performance.

photos by Carol Rosegg

Jay Johnson: The Two and Only
reviewed at North Coast Rep in San Diego
played April 15 & 16, 2019
for future dates and cities, visit Two and Only

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