Jay Johnson: The Two and Only! Written and performed by Jay Johnson. Conceived by Jay Johnson, Murphy Cross, Paul Kreppel. Scenery by Beowulf Boritt. Lighting by Clifton Taylor. Sound by David Gotwald. Original music by Michael Andreas. Directed by Murphy Cross & Paul Kreppel.
It's a scene as old as show business itself: Two longtime pals and partners forced to dissolve their successful act because one is being tapped for fame and fortune and the other is not. The anticipation, the denial, the disappointment, the acceptance... These have all been seen countless times before, in ways more original and insightful than the writing of the rendition currently being delivered eight times a week at the Helen Hayes.
Yet few have ever evoked the depth of aching humanity evident in the riveting emotional climax of Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!. This scene, notably both innocent and adult, is perhaps most remarkable because only one of its participants is human.
That's Johnson, whose departure from his adolescent friend and stalwart costar did indeed help him shoot to celebrity on the satirical sitcom Soap (1977-1981). But though his partner Squeaky is ostensibly a ventriloquist's dummy, watching him and Johnson reenact their long-ago goodbyes is more somber and uplifting than many equivalently anguished moments hashed out between living actors.
Each optimistic word Squeaky utters in his shaky falsetto is a heartbreaker. With each turn of his head, he casts his disproportionately large eyes at a new target as if to stare it down with twinkling love. His body movements relate his desperate need to hold onto his friend, tinged with the halting realization that it's time to let him go. What is never suggested, even fleetingly, is a small wooden puppet controlled by Johnson's hand and voiced by Johnson's unmoving lips.
Even now, 30 years after parting ways, Johnson treats Squeaky with the care of a newborn baby and the reverence of a lifelong buddy. When a grateful, regretful Johnson finally replaces Squeaky in the box that is now his home and preserves his soul - as taught by his mentor Arthur Sieving - by placing a black cloth over his eyes, you keenly understand no mere dummy would ever be afforded this ritual. Squeaky is family, and while he may vanish from view, he's never forgotten.
One suspects that, were he capable of hearing the applause their exchange generates, Squeaky - like all true show-biz veterans - would have it no other way. There's no magic greater in this show than that Johnson uses to bring Squeaky so completely to life, but his other tricks - most of which originate somewhere between his nose and his neck - could give any pedestrian prestidigitator a run for his money.
Those tricks are couched - as the most effective ones always are - in reality. Specifically, the history of ventriloquism, from the Oracle of Delphi (who used it to help family members make peace with the dead) to the Dark Ages and beyond, when the ability was often mistaken for witchcraft or insanity. Each new story establishing for the uninitiated ventriloquism as a performance tradition worthy of utmost respect allows Johnson to introduce a new friend to help him prove that - all seriousness aside - its preferred application today is good old fun.
His special guests include Amigo, the world's only talking snake; Nethernore, an ill-tempered familiar spirit (shaped like a vulture) left over from the Dark Ages; an adorable talking tennis ball named Spaulding; and Darwin, a jazz monkey with a taste for tasteless simian-human humor. Of course, Bob - Johnson's famously foul-mouthed Soap alter-ego, and the one who usurped Squeaky's position in Jay's life - makes an appearance well in accordance with his own delicious notoriety.
Each costar allows Johnson free reign over his imagination and, like all great showmen, he seldom gives you quite what you expect. (Nethernore's carrion-crawling cover of "My Way" (with some adjusted lyrics) is one highlight; an especially surprising surprise guest, who aids Johnson in explaining the audio science behind ventriloquism, handily tops it later with a wry spin on another familiar tune.) But as Johnson leaves much of his personal life offstage, all you're guaranteed is a master of a misunderstood art dazzling you for 90 minutes with prodigiously honed talent you'll never see matched elsewhere.
However, this ride of fears, tears, and fall-down funny is not for everyone: A few instances of strong language might make it inappropriate for younger children, who would otherwise likely love Johnson's assembled menagerie. And as consistently entertaining as The Two and Only! is, as written (by Johnson), conceived (by Johnson, Murphy Cross, and Paul Kreppel) and directed (by Cross and Kreppel), it feels more like an elaborate comedy act than a play; Primo, Golda's Balcony, or even Elaine Stritch at Liberty this is not.
But when Johnson delves most deeply into the significance of his unique gift, that matters little. When he describes his own oracular abilities to unite the dead and the living, by resurrecting Sieving's own cherished dummy for one final performance for his grieving widow, the effect is more mesmerizing than most comedies would dare hope. Like that goodbye scene with Squeaky, it's a moment of naked honesty that transforms a show from tiny and enjoyable into something much more profound. Is The Two and Only! really theatre? I'm not sure. But whatever it is, it's not to be missed.