Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Maybe a Little More Evolution is in Order

"Jay Johnson: The Two and Only!" at the Helen Hayes Theatre, November 14, 2006

He seems like such a nice man, but I kept asking myself, "Why is this on Broadway?"

Jay Johnson, most notable for the roles of Chuck and Bob on the groundbreaking 1970's TV show "Soap," has evolved this performance over the past couple of years, its most recent installment at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2004. Apparently the 10+ producers whose names appear above the title thought the show was worthy of Broadway.

The structure of the show is mechanical. He begins with some obscure history about ventriloquism, taking the audience back into ancient history with claims that the Oracles were ventriloquists. Fast forward to a book written a couple of hundred years ago by a Frenchman who concluded that ventriloquism was a mental disorder.

Once the actual ventriloquism starts, Mr. Johnson shows his significant talent for his art, (a bottle, a severed head). It's too bad he doesn't have more to say beyond the description of it as a difficult career choice. Certainly, the high points are when the dummies land the jokes, and there are several funny moments. When he speaks of his mentor, there is real emotion in his voice, but it's not really moving to the audience.

He parades a series of vehicles:
  • a speaking snake who's afraid of snakes (1-joke)
  • a vulture who feels a sense of death on the stage (more profound than was intended)
  • a telephone conversation with imaginary friends (no jokes, despite the effort)
  • his first custom-made partner, Squeaky (another almost-touching moment)
  • Bob, from "Soap"
  • Darwin, a monkey (the name? it just evolved)
Of these characters, we either don't get a chance to really know them or they stay beyond their welcome before they are folded up and packed away. I would have liked more time with Squeaky and Bob, given what we're told about how they entered and impacted Mr. Johnson's life.

The set, by Beowulf Boritt foreshadows a tale of a man on the road, living out of the numerous trunks and suitcases that litter the stage. We don't really get a "road story" in spite of this. Clifton Taylor's lighting is effective, but anticlimactic.

It is the direction by Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel that is the most puzzling. One would expect much more visual interest from a dancer/choreographer like Ms. Murphy. Mr. Kreppel's resume is much more eclectic which should have provided a more interesting evening with such experience, as well.

In the end, what could have been a very entertaining evening was more like listening to someone look through his photo album.

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