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THEATER REVIEW

Great trick -- weird, though

If there is genius in Jay Johnson's dummy show, it is the ventriloquist's skill. The story doesn't quite give it a voice.

January 25, 2006|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

There's something about a grown man with his hand up a puppet that inevitably arouses suspicion.

That's the underlying lesson from "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only," the genial though ultimately unremarkable solo show by the ventriloquist best known for his Chuck and Bob routine on the groundbreaking '70s sitcom "Soap." The piece, which opened Monday at the Brentwood Theatre and is heading to Broadway in the spring, is a reminder that this basic distrust has existed for as long as people have been throwing their voices.

Actually, a ventriloquist doesn't "throw" his voice. That seemingly scientific notion turns out to be as erroneous as other once-popular explanations for a ventriloquist's strange ability, such as demonic possession, bizarre physical abnormality and mental illness. Johnson gives away a trick of the trade by showing how varying amplitude of the voice can lend the impression of distance. It's a technical display, illustrated with a sound-wave graph that eventually prompts Johnson to apologize for being too "Discovery Channel." In fact, whenever he senses the audience might be growing restless, he or one of his inanimate cast members (which includes a sock-puppet snake, a meek tennis ball, two wooden man-boys, a death-hungry vulture and a monkey with a rotten stand-up act) makes a self-deprecating quip.

And that's the other thing you observe about ventriloquists from watching Johnson: They seem to lack the courage of their theatrical convictions. The desire to be a little provocative (or at least unabashedly oneself) keeps butting up against the need for general approval. No wonder they rely on their little friends to serve as scapegoats for even the mildest of risky thoughts.

Don't expect any answers here to the psychological questions ventriloquism was raising long before the 1978 thriller "Magic" creeped everyone out. The show, written by Johnson from an idea he conceived with his directors, Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel, offers only a scattershot mix of history, personal anecdote and expert demonstration of the craft.

Johnson, still the same sandy-haired boyish presence despite a slight middle-aged spread, is an undeniably gifted practitioner, one of the famous few who don't seem to be moving their lips. Never mind the old standby of sipping water while singing -- Johnson can tape his and his puppet's mouths shut and bounce a muzzled-sounding tune back and forth, all the time reeling off an endless array of sound effects and forgettable jokes. (The humor may hark back to the days of "The Merv Griffin Show," but it's the verbal juggling that impresses.)

The most moving part of the show is the one Johnson skimps on telling -- his own. Sure, we hear about what it was like to be a boy growing up in Texas with a penchant for making dolls speak. (Not easy, but fortunately not too traumatic either.) But he only hints at the loneliness that must have been a driving force behind his desire to spend hours chatting alone with an imaginary playmate. Or the weird mind-set of a high school student who, having probably bored his friends and family within an inch of their lives, performed at fairgrounds and contests every chance he could get.

While shopping around for a new dummy, a 17-year-old Johnson met Arthur Sieving, the vaudeville ventriloquist and famed puppet maker, who, though long retired, not only built him his first professional "partner" but served as a spiritual mentor. Johnson had already discovered his calling by this point, but it's Sieving's gentle guidance that set him down an ordained path.

Johnson's own eyes glisten with tears at the memory of the man who taught him to put a black cloth over his dummy's face before closing the case at night. And, in the spirit of what Sieving taught him, I should probably refrain from using the word "dummy," which apparently has disturbing connotations of mute lifelessness and Macy's mannequins. "Wooden Americans" is the current preferred term, Johnson jokes, though it's clear by the way he handles his costars just how fully he's absorbed the compassionate values of his beloved teacher.

A little more self-questioning toughness, however, would have served his show better. For instance, what's it like to be a ventriloquist on a much-buzzed-about network sitcom -- and then not. Johnson would rather perform some '70s version of his act. Though he says his life changed after answering a casting-call ad in Daily Variety that led to his role on "Soap," he'd rather not get into what happened after the floor dropped out of his profession in the decades that followed and he went from talk-show guest of last resort to "Oh, yeah, isn't that what's-his-name from the old TV series where Billy Crystal was gay?"

Maybe that's what makes ventriloquism so disturbing -- the sense that some obvious reality has gone missing.

*

`Jay Johnson: The Two and Only'

Where: Brentwood Theatre,

11301 Wilshire Blvd.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

Ends: Feb. 19

Price: $30 to $59

Contact: (213) 365-3500

Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Written and performed by Jay Johnson. Directed and co-created by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel. Sets Beowulf Boritt. Lighting Clifton Taylor. Sound David Gotwald. Original music Michael Andreas. Production supervisor Lori Ann Zepp.

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