Many a solo performer could be accused of talking out of both sides of his or her mouth. And then there's Jay Johnson, the master ventriloquist best known for his role on the 1970s sitcom "Soap," whose mouth never even moves during the funniest parts of his solo show "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only," which has moved to Broadway three years after delighting New York audiences at Off-Broadway's Atlantic Theater Company.
Well, maybe solo show isn't the completely accurate term, since Johnson periodically brings out some of his non-human companions to enliven the proceedings. And enliven it they do! Johnson's priceless interactions with a hyperactive monkey named Darwin, a voracious vulture named Nevernore, and even a tennis ball named, you got it, Spalding rival the sharpest comic serve-and-volleys in history. Sure, some of this material is decidedly Borsch Beltish or even slightly juvenile, but it's undeniably hilarious. So is the playfully nasty routine Johnson does with his most famous partner, Bob, with whom he shared hours of screen time on "Soap." Their unique rapport hasn't changed in the past three decades. And in the end, what does Johnson care of any of these creations upstage him? They are him!
Only one of Johnson's companions doesn't go for the laughs: his original partner, Squeaky, who essentially had to retire when the creators of "Soap" decided he looked to sweet for the part. Indeed, Johnson's break-it-to-him gently conversation with Squeaky is one of the show's two most touching moments (whether or not it actually happened); the other is when the widow of Squeaky's creator visits the now-famous Johnson in his hotel room just days after her husband's death to pass on a significant part of Severing's legacy.
Not of all Johnson's autobiographical remembrances muster quite the same effect, in part, because his life was relatively undramatic. For example, the tales of his happy childhood in Texas are decidedly ho-hum, and he shares practically nothing about post-"Soap" life. He also delivers a few insights into the history of ventriloquism, explaining how some ancient societies saw it as satanic, but they're more interesting than truly gripping. As a result, "The Two and Only" evolves into an odd sort of solo show, once where we anxiously wait to see which of the numerous onstage trunks and suitcases Johnson will open and what magical creature will happen next.