Jay Johnson: More than lip service

Ventriloquism has been moving more and more into the entertainment mainstream of late, with "America's Got Talent" winner Terry Fator ensconced in Las Vegas and the ubiquitous Jeff Dunham filling the TV channels with characters ranging from a dead terrorist to a jalapeño on a stick.

To that short list of comic spellbinders must now be added Jay Johnson, who's both a master ventriloquist and a devoted student of the art. He's currently demonstrating his ample skills in an all-too-brief engagement at the Laguna Playhouse.

In "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only," the 2007 Tony Award winner offers something most ventriloquists seem to avoid — the performer's own personality. Johnson devotes significant chunks of his two-hour, intermission-less program to his growth and development in the art — often to the detriment of his work with a puppet (he won't call them "dummies").

It's all quite intriguing — particularly the tear-inducing final segment — but we do miss the more entertaining portions, such as his routine with a hyperactive monkey that resembles Dunham's antics with the goofy "Peanut." The simian, named Darwin, is the headliner and Johnson saves him for the spot next to closing.

Johnson puts his life on the line, or at least on the bill, as he traces his boyhood fascination with inanimate figures through his first major job on the TV series "Soap." He was hired, but his wooden partner wasn't, leading to a flinty and hilariously hostile interaction between Johnson and his new dummy, Bob.

The heart-tugging segment of the show involves Johnson's relationship with an older ventriloquist, Art Sieving, who created his last companion for Johnson.

Sieving was famous for his routine with "Harry O'Shea" and bequeathed the dummy to Johnson when he passed on.

Johnson tells the story about trying to contact Sieving and being notified by the older man's widow of his passing — and of his final gift. We never actually see Harry O'Shea, but his picture in the program marks him as a second cousin to Charlie McCarthy.

Directors Murphy Cross and Paul Kreppel have come up with a simple yet highly effective presentation in which the only setting (designed by Beowulf Boritt) consists of various trunks presumably all containing ventriloquist's buddies.

From the wisecracking snake who opens the show to the manic monkey who closes it, "Jay Johnson: The Two and Only" is a howl, interrupted by more educational moments which seem somewhat overlong. The history lessons are informative, but most audience members came for the talent.

Only four more performances remain in this abbreviated engagement that offers both a treatise on ventriloquism and the opportunity to witness one of its masters at work.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Coastline Pilot.

If You Go

What: Jay Johnson: The Two and Only

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: Closing performances tonight at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 2 p.m.

Cost: $35 to $65

Call: (494) 497-2787


WHAT: Jay Johnson: The Two and Only

WHERE: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

WHEN: Closing performances tonight at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8, Sunday at 2 p.m.

COST: $35 to $65

CALL: (494) 497-2787

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