Early ventriloquists were both feared and mistrusted for their seeming ability to rouse the dead - or at least to make the dead speak. Jay Johnson, today's preeminent practitioner of this ancient art, tries mightily, if rather meekly, to revive some moribund entertainment traditions in "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only," his new Broadway show.
It's not only ventriloquism but vaudeville shtick as old as the hills that gets dusted off here: When one of Johnson's signature armpieces, a fluffy vulture called Nethernore, is asked to provide a "duck call," he caws out, "Here, ducky, ducky!"
It's a tribute to Johnson's lifelong seasoning in front of audiences, from arena crowds to private parties, that such rim-shot one-liners come off at all. There is undeniable joy to be had in witnessing this ineluctably theatrical technique onstage, as Johnson throws his voice not only into puppets and dummies but into trunks, under the stage, and into unidentifiable middle distances.
One of his smartest tricks is to play with the conventions of the format so that his lifelike characters often seem to be little ventriloquists themselves: muffling their speech, offering asides, even trying to steal Johnson's thunder.
But Johnson and director Murphy Cross seem to feel that 90 minutes of straight-up vocal antics wouldn't make a whole evening, so they've added a solo show that's part-memoir, part-advocacy.
We've come out to see a man do amazing stuff with his voice. Do we really need a defensive lecture about the artistic merit of the practice? And while the man from Illinois who crafted then 17-year-old Johnson his first custom puppet, sounds lovely, the tearjerking on his behalf is both overreaching and somehow irrelevant. Must every art form minted before TiVo come with a self-pitying glaze of nostalgia?
The maudlin meandering is all the more frustrating because when Johnson is on, he's riveting. Though he's a master with the traditional wooden dummy - he has a satisfyingly long bout with Bob, the self-involved meanie he worked with on the '70s TV show "Soap" - he does some of his best work with hand puppets and other improvised devices. He gives each a distinct character: A split tennis ball has a world-weary whine; a face drawn on a dry-erase board has Borscht Belt timing. A pair of gruff, big-mouthed talking animals, Nethernore and the gibbering monkey Darwin, evoke fond memories of Jim Henson's cackling ogres.
Darwin handily hits the show's high point with a series of self-amused "monkey jokes." ("You ought to see my family tree. Most of the family's still there.") His infectious laugh, stiff-necked stare, and restlessly head-bobbing energy nearly make us believe he could leap off Johnson's arm and into the house, as he threatens to do.
Suspension of disbelief is what ventriloquism is all about. The best moments of "The Two and Only" show that to us; the lesser moments merely tell us about it.
JAY JOHNSON: THE TWO AND ONLY
. Written and performed by Jay Johnson. Directed by Murphy Cross. Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St., Manhattan. Tickets $51.25-$81.25. Call 212-239-6200. Seen at Tuesday preview.