The Broadway reviews are in!
“SPLENDID, HILARIOUS, GIDDY ENTERTAINMENT! If the chatty tennis ball doesn’t get to you, the monkey humming ‘Send in the Clowns’ WILL DEFINITELY MAKE YOU A TRUE BELIEVER!”– Michael Kuchwara, Associated Press
“EXTREMELY FUNNY! A SUPER-VIRTUOSO! I expected to enjoy ‘The Two and Only,’ but I didn’t expect to be touched, much less to find my eyes growing moist.”– Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal
“READ MY LIPS – ‘JAY JOHNSON: THE TWO AND ONLY’ IS A RARE, HILARIOUS TREAT! YOU SIMPLY WON’T BELIEVE YOUR EARS!”– David Cote, NY1
“ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT! 90 MINUTES OF TOTAL MIRTH AND GLEE! Jay Johnson is the best at his profession. I hope he’s a big winner at the Helen Hayes!”– David Richardson, WOR Radio
“SERIOUS LAUGHS! A surprisingly moving as well as highly funny evening!”– Frank Scheck, Hollywood Reporter
“GENUINELY TOUCHING! Johnson is a gifted actor: who else could provoke tears by hugging a wooden object?”– John Simon, Bloomberg New
“EXCEPTIONAL! EFFORTLESS MASTERY! Johnson is a voice virtuoso – the best ventriloquist you’ll ever see!”– Robert Feldberg, The Record
“JAY JOHNSON SHINES AS A BROADWAY SHOWMAN! AN AMAZING TALENT who can skillfully mix zany comedy and the pathos of life. A virtuoso display that brings down the house!”– Malcolm Johnson, Hartford Courant
“AN IRRESISTIBLE BLEND OF SCHMALTZ AND SAVVY! Johnson’s rapport with the audience and with his puppets is consistently superb. Hugely ingratiating!”–Eric Grode, The New York Sun
“THRILLING! FLAWLESS! SUCH DAZZLING TALENT, ONLY A REAL DUMMY COULD RESIST! It’s not a novelty act – it has story lines, tensions, character development, and a whole lot of laughs. That’s what good theater does!”– Howard Shapiro, Philadelphia Inquirer
September 29, 2006
By CLIVE BARNES
Word of (No) Mouth
VENTRILOQUISM isn’t for everyone. Most people who want to throw their voices can go ahead and throw them and, for all I care, leave them in the cloakroom, uncollected.
But Jay Johnson, who last night opened his oddly named one-man show “Jay Johnson: The Two and Only” at the Helen Hayes, is, by any reckoning, a very special ventriloquist and a very entertaining one, at that. The secret to Johnson’s sweetly diverting evening is his strangely diffident charm – you find yourself really liking the guy – and the sheer quality of his material. I was reminded of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen (best remembered these days as the father of Candice Bergen) and his puppet Charlie McCarthy, who 60 years ago were terrific on radio. (Radio, for God’s sake! Who ever knew whether that guy’s lips moved?)
Significantly, about Bergen and McCarthy, there was always a certain malice between puppet and his human sidekick. They seemed to hate each other. It’s a malice that obviously goes with the territory. In a wonderful old English movie, “Dead of Night,” Michael Redgrave plays a mad ventriloquist who is murdered by his own puppet.That demonic possession is something we secretly look for in ventriloquists, and Johnson’s guileless, unwary charm makes this dangerous quality all the more compelling.
OK, his animated tennis ball is a delight, while a cartoon face, which Johnson draws and brings to life before your eyes, is a feat of sheer virtuosity. But it’s when the puppets get nasty, such as with a singularly mean and obstreperous monkey called Darwin, that the creatures take on that deathly and fascinating life of their own. Here and there, Johnson waxes too sentimental in his reminiscences, and while his fascination with the mystic history of ventriloquism is certainly interesting, his moments of autobiography – years ago he starred in the TV series “Soap” – are perhaps a moment or two too many.
Still, all in all, this is a surprising, and extremely funny, one-man show that has a character to it and more than a few characters in it.
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.
TIME OUT NEW YORK
By Adam Feldman
Oct 5-11 2006
If you only see one ventriloquism showcase on Broadway this decade—and honestly, what are the chances you’ll see more than one?—make it Jay Johnson’s extraordinary The Two and Only!, which earns its exclamation point and then some. The immensely gifted Johnson spends most of the evening playing straight man, while giving voice to an eclectic assortment of previously inanimate costars: two little wooden men, a monkey, a snake, a vulture, a tennis ball, a dry-erase-board doodle and, briefly, a decapitated head. Johnson can throw his voice like a Cy Young–winning pitcher, but his keenly honed technical skills are only part of the package. Equal measures puppet show, magic act, history lesson, memoir and vaudeville comedy routine, The Two and Only! is astoundingly entertaining.
Ventriloquists no longer command the popular attention that they did in the golden age of Edgar Bergen; Johnson, a series regular on the frothy 1970s sitcom Soap, is perhaps the only practitioner of his ancient art to command any mass-culture name recognition today. He is upholding an endangered tradition, and there are traces of gentle sadness in his nostalgia; those who come to the show expecting a simple dummy act may be surprised to find themselves sniffling at Johnson’s tender account of his friendship with the older ventriloquist who carved his first wood partner. Most of the time, however, Johnson’s capable hands transform the audience into his happy toy accomplices, with mouths carved into perpetual smiles.
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
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.