When it comes to ventriloquists, I’m with you. They do not make my spirits soar. Even in childhood, I always dreaded a ventriloquist coming onstage with his wooden “friend” folded in a suitcase crying, “Let me out! Let me out!”
No disrespect to the masterly ventriloquist Jay Johnson, whose The Two and Only! is currently on Broadway, but I prefer magicians, with their whiff of the sideshow demimonde of card sharps, hustlers and circus freaks. True, the ventriloquist has always possessed his own twilight zone—the grinning dummy in the cupboard who flickers to life to murder anyone who happens to be around, particularly the ventriloquist. Or this creepy, personal favorite of mine: the dummy who’s really the ventriloquist!
But I was raised on tamer stuff. One of the most popular acts in the land when I was growing up in England was Peter Brough and his mischievous dummy named Archie Andrews. They were the Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy of their day. The big problem with their act, however, was that you could see Peter Brough’s lips move. Furthermore, he made no attempt to keep them from moving. It was always staggering to me. The beloved ventriloquist would say to Archie, “And how are you today, Archie?” And then, as Archie looked at him blankly, he would reply for all to see, “Oh I’m frightfully well, thank you.”
I don’t know how they got away with it, yet the two of them became one of the most popular acts on radio. (So did Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.) Time has made the peculiar art of ventriloquism a bizarre footnote to theater history, along with vaudevillian adagio acts, underwater escape artists and yodeling accordionists. Today, there is about the ventriloquist a touch of the cruise ship in the night. And now it’s docked on Broadway, where Jay Johnson’s The Two and Only! has followed those two gleeful drunks, Kiki and Herb, into the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street.
The first thing to know about the apple-cheeked Mr. Johnson, however, is that he does not move his lips. He can handle with ease what he calls, in his erudite way, a “plosive consonant.” He’s so deft at it that he can even say “pepperoni pizza” if he wants to. His engagingly retro act, first produced in New York at the Atlantic Theater Off Broadway, is part scholarship, part dazzling performance. He tells of the day that he auditioned for the role of the ventriloquist in the 70’s TV sitcom, Soap, which would make him nationally famous. But they wanted him to work with a dummy named Bob instead of his own. Mr. Johnson looked at us balefully as he related this and explained that right there and then, he knew that no one connected with the show knew the first thing about ventriloquism. Whereupon, a single child at the performance I attended burst out laughing.
“Only me and that child know what I’m talking about!” Mr. Johnson added quickly, to affectionate laughter—and he was right. Only the child knew that one could never call a ventriloquist’s dummy “Bob.” The B-word is the ventriloquist’s Everest. For Mr. Johnson, it’s no problem: He can reel off “big bottle of beer” without moving his lips at all. Try it for yourself. “Gig gottle of geer.” Or try saying “Bob’s on Broadway”: “Gog’s on Groadway.”
It takes committed training, I imagine (though Mr. Johnson says he was born to do it). Ventriloquism is the verbal equivalent of a sleight of hand, and Mr. Johnson’s scholarly investigations into the art form remind me of Ricky Jay’s academic rigor about the mythic history of magic. In A.D. 850, Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, apparently condemned ventriloquism—or voice-throwing—as evil lurking inside the human belly. (From the Latin Ventriloquus, “speaking from the belly”). Mr. Johnson also informs us gravely that during the Dark Ages, ventriloquism was associated with necromancers, soothsayers, occult spiritualism, witchcraft, Satan and the like. There’s only so much we need to know, however.
On the other hand, Mr. Johnson is an obsessed student of the form who wants to preserve it like a secret art. A relaxed, affable presence, in contrast to the sinister, schizophrenic ventriloquists of folklore, he refuses to use the insulting word “dummy” to describe his partners. Dummies can’t talk, he explains with slightly troubling sincerity. He prefers the politer word “puppet.” For myself, a puppet suggests the cute (a lightweight Lamb Chop) or an arty cartoon (The Lion King) or the commercially hip (Avenue Q). Even so, it becomes clear during The Two and Only! that the apparently sane Mr. Johnson regards his puppets as human beings.
His rapid-fire conversations with a temperamental vulture who sings a version of “My Way,” or the repartee of a tennis ball with a mouth, were of passing interest to me, I must say. And Mr. Johnson was perhaps too saccharine about his mentor, the retired ventriloquist Arthur Sieving and his wooden partner, Harry O’Shea. But Mr. Sieving was the first to believe in him, and he handed down the mysteries of the “heart and soul” of a wooden puppet that must never be touched by anyone else—the lever and stick that make the mouth and eyes work.
Mr. Sieving also carved Mr. Johnson’s first wooden puppet, Squeaky—the equivalent, he told us, of a Stradivarius. But when Mr. Johnson signed on to play the ventriloquist on Soap, Squeaky was considered too sweet to play the role of belligerent Bob and he had to be replaced.
“But I want to work with you. You’re the guy who got me here,” Jay tells Squeaky, unhappily breaking the news to him.
“I know that,” Squeaky replies. “It’s O.K.”
This is getting weird. We have an upset middle-aged man explaining to a wooden puppet that he’s being replaced in the leading role because he’s too sweet? “Then get a fuckin’ chisel!” Squeaky cries out surprisingly, desperate to land the part. A puppet is forever who he is, however. A puppet does not get a face-lift. But you nevertheless appreciate Mr. Johnson’s great daring: The F-word is practically impossible for a ventriloquist to say without moving his lips.
From then on, a sustained 20 minutes of Mr. Johnson’s The Two and Only! amounted to such genius that Bob, the wooden star of Soap, might as well have been alive. It’s uncanny and dazzling. Whenever Bob spoke, your eyes moved from Mr. Johnson to listen to him: The puppet was speaking!
And then I thought: I’ve finally lost it. But in such strange ways, the puppet becomes the master, while that split personality—the ventriloquist—becomes the slave. Mr. Johnson gives ventriloquism a good name. He’s the best I’ve ever seen—a last link to those eccentric stage warriors in danger and individualism who became the revered ghosts of variety and the music hall. He had me on the floor with laughter at the close. He ended his virtuoso show in the unexpected company of a hysterical, manic monkey named Darwin, who sang a moving rendition of “Send in the Clowns.”
In an author’s note about her play Birth and After Birth, currently surely confusing everyone at the Atlantic Theater, Tina Howe writes that when she completed the play in the early 1970’s, “producers had never seen anything like it” and “ran screaming for the door.”
My feelings exactly. Ms. Howe—author of such superior plays as Painting Churches and Coastal Disturbances—has written an incomprehensible, bewilderingly overwrought drama of high foolishness. The piece was provoked by her thought that a woman isn’t a woman until she has children. If so, you wouldn’t know it from all the pretension and plain silliness that’s going on here in the good old cause of the Theater of the Absurd.
Written in 1972—and never produced in New York until now—the play lost me early, through no particular fault of its own. I long ago failed to find grown actors playing children in the least bit funny. (See The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for the perfect infantilization of the culture.) In Birth and After Birth, it’s an adult actor pretending to be a 4-year-old slob.
Act I was meant to be a comedy about horribly indulgent parents who behave like children on the eve of the birthday party for their loathsome, greedy child. Nothing new about that (though Ms. Howe seems to think so). The child’s young mother seems to be physically disintegrating, shedding tiny avalanches of dandruff. The father throws things. And the big baba occasionally says stuff like, “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”
Act II concerns the visit of a childless couple—two smug anthropologists who sit upon the carpet and tell stories of primal fertility rites. The earnest wife figure seems to undergo a hysterical childbirth. Then she dies and comes back to life. The obnoxious child does, too. The kid also wears the masks of various Presidents and performs bad impersonations of them.
Tina Howe’s painful Birth and After Birth defeated me, I’m afraid. It’s trying to say something about the trials of womanhood, and possibly the miracle of life. If anyone finds out, let me know.