Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!, a CurtainUp review CurtainUp

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A CurtainUp Review
Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!

Jay Johnson
Jay Johnson and his wooden sidekick Bob (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
This solo show -- well, solo in terms of flesh and blood cast -- was supposed to land at the Helen Hayes last year but got bumped onto a waiting line by the one-woman Bridge and Tunnel. Johnson is an old-fashioned entertainer and the only thing wooden about him are sweet-naturedSqueaky his first dummy -- or, to use the term he prefers, "wooden American" -- and the tougher Bob, his wooden partner for four years on the television sitcom Soap. In fact, Johnson's voice throwing talents are not limited to wooden puppets but include feathery, furry creatures -- a tennis ball (really!) and a magic marker drawn cartoon portrait.

Before I go any further, a brief full disclosure statement: Except for Shari Lewis' Lamb Chops I've never been a fan of this voice-throwing art form. And no matter how theatrically sound the staging I'm iffy about nightclub style entertainment expanded and dressed up to justify its presence in a legitimate theater.

That said, Beowulf Boritt's trunk and basket filled set not only justifies its claim as a theater set but is ideally suited to Jay Johnson:The Two and Only! As for the show itself . . . while I'm still inclined to prefer seeing legitimate theaters like the Helen Hayes host real plays rather than performance pieces, The Two and Only, no matter how you classify it, is enormously entertaining and Johnson a winning performer and a brilliant master of his craft. His interspersed bits of the history of ventriloquism (did you know that his artistic forbears go back to the Oracle at Delphi?) add an interesting dimension to the 100-minute, intermissionless show . And, yes, the cast of wooden, feathered and furry friends he pulls out of the various containers won me over.

. Johnson, an unassuming, just folks kind of guy who reminds one of John Edwards, the former Democratic vice-presidential candidate, is, of course the star of this enterprise. However, whenever his "co-stars" pop out of a trunk or basket, roll on stage (as does that amazing tennis ball finger puppet, Spalding) or pop off a sketch easel, Johnson lets their often outrageous personalities take center stage. Even the more rumbuctious than sweet characters like nutty vulture Nethernore and the irrepressible and vulgar jokester, Darwin the monkey. are adorable. To add some touchy-feely moments, there's an affecting finale involving his mentor Arthur Sieving, and Squeaky who he created for Johnson.

Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel who were responsible for helping Johnson give enough theatricality to this piece to make this Broadway run possible, direct the proceedings unobtrusively though they should have helped him to trim it to ninety minutes. Except for some of the language which may put off some parents, this is very much a family friendly show.

JAY JOHNSON: THE TWO AND ONLY! For Tina Howe's birth and after birth, which opened its New York premiere engagement last night at the Atlantic Theater, scenic designer Takeshi Kata has created a lovely environment of dichotomies. Essentially Howe's play unfolds in a non-descript living room with dining area, except two of the walls are painted a beautiful sky blue with clouds. Above the room, two tree branches seem to have intruded. As the play unfolds, theatergoers will notice that occasionally it looks as if Josh Bradford is adding to the effect of outdoors having moved indoors by giving faintest trace of clouds actually rolling by in his lighting design. In the play's final moments, one will understand why the designers have taken this approach to Howe's metaphor and symbol-filled play about the effects that having a child has on a couple. At the center of the play are Bill and Sandy, who are preparing for their son Nicky's fourth birthday. After a morning of opening presents, they expect another couple, Jeffrey and Mia, who are childless, but still have young ones in their lives: they are anthropologists who travel the world studying children. With the exception of the physical environment, nothing seems unusual about Bill and Sandy's preparations. However, when Nicky comes bounding into the room ready to wreak havoc on the myriad presents his parents have wrapped, the boy is actually played by adult actor Jordan Gelber, who sports sky blue pajamas with a bunny on the top (a bit of whimsy, supporting Howe's text, from designer Bobby Frederick Tilley II). The casting of an adult in this role is necessary because Howe's script requires the boy to be both infantile and exceedingly adult. At one point when pouting, he places a stuffed rabbit on the floor and utters the famed line from Shakespeare's Richard II: "let us sit on the ground and tell sad stories?" Gelber's presence as the couple's child also helps to underscore fundamental themes of the play including the ways in which parents can pressure their children to be "little adults" and the ways in which parents can infantilize themselves not only around their child but also around other adults. As the piece moves forward, Howe's play expands to include an exploration of how some parents pressure other adults to rear children, even when having a child has compromised their own relationship. Ultimately, Howe moves even further afield as Bill begins to describe a retreat on which he went for work and the behavior of a "colleague" who proceeded to act out sexually with a majority of his co-workers (all the while wearing various animal masks) and anthropologist Mia describes a lengthy dream that she's had about Nicky, in which he was so tiny she had to carry him in a soap dish. On some levels, particularly when Bill and Sandy begin screaming at Nicky in frustration, Howe's play reminds one of another portrait of dysfunctional parenting currently on stage in the city Bruce Norris' The Pain and the Itch. However, as symbolism increasingly takes over ? Sandy complains about her front tooth being loose and her scalp feeling as if it has dried to sand ? theatergoers will cease to think of comparisons and simply struggle to keep up with Howe's overactive imagination and heavy hitting conceits. Director Christian Parker, in attempting to leaven the piece by giving it an almost breakneck staging, only makes the experience of watching "birth" even more overwhelming for audiences, who even as they work to keep pace, are amazed at the mercurial qualities of all of the performers, particularly Jeff Binder and Maggie Kiley as Nicky's folks. During the course of "birth," Binder and Kiley often are called upon to switch moods with speed that comes natural only to uninhibited and capricious infants and they do it marvelously. As the other couple, Peter Benson and Kate Blumberg are spot-on as the do-gooder anthropologists, patiently enduring Bill and Sandy's rhapsodies about parenthood, and even succumbing to some of their host's infantile behavior. As for the environment of "birth," the reason for it becomes evident after Jeffrey and Mia have departed and Bradford's lighting begins to swirl in earnest and the crashing of waves and the sounds of gulls are heard. Howe's play is a warning about marooning oneself intellectually and emotionally as a parent. ----------------------------
Directed and co-created by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel.
Starring Jay Johnson
Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Lights: Clifton Taylor
Sound:David Gotwald
Original Music: Michael Andreas
Running Time:90 minutes without an intermission
Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street 212/239-6200,
From 9/19/06; opening 9/28/06
Tuesday through Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm, Sunday at 1pm and 5pm. Tickets: $81.25,$51.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 3rd performance
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