'Surviving Twin': Theater Review

William Hansen
Loudon Wainwright III performing 'Surviving Twin'
The sardonically humorous singer-songwriter delivers a moving meditation on father/son relationships

Loudon Wainwright III's one-man show combines his own songs with spoken-word excerpts from his famed magazine columnist father's writings.

Loudon Wainwright III has always told stories in his songs, usually of the sardonically humorous and deeply personal variety. He mines both qualities to excellent effect in his one-man show, described as a "posthumous collaboration" with his father, famed Life Magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., whose "The View From Here" essays ran in the publication from 1963 until his death in 1988. Alternately poignant and bittersweet, Surviving Twin is both a moving homage and a pointed musical meditation on the complexities of familial relationships.

Directed by actor Daniel Stern, the piece is simple in its theatricality. Appearing on a nearly bare stage, the singer performs monologues composed of excerpts from his father's columns, interspersed with thematically related songs from throughout his career, in which he accompanies himself on guitar, banjo ukulele and piano. It also features video projections of decades of family photographs and home movies.

It's clear from the spoken-word segments that Wainwright has inherited his father's literary talent, one that has also been passed down to his own children, singer-songwriters Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright Roche.   

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He begins with the title song, from his 2001 album Last Man on Earth, in which he sings about his conflicted, near Oedipal relationship with his father: "But how can you murder someone/In a way that they don't die?/I didn't want to kill him/That would be suicide." That's followed by an excerpt from a column entitled "Life With — and Without Father," in which Wainwright Jr. comments about his relationship with his own father, and then the song "Half Fist," in which the singer reflects on his grandfather, "the first Loudon," who died four years before he was born.

"They say he was an SOB, who liked to smoke and drink/In the photos he looks handsome … trapped is what I think."

Wainwright III, who has no shortage of acting credits, does very well by the monologues, which are not merely recited but performed. One highlight is "Disguising the Man," in which his father describes buying his first tailored, Saville Row suit. The singer also plays the role of the tailor, gently guiding his father through the laborious fitting process, and then dons a sharp three-piece suit before casually revealing that "this is the actual suit that Mr. Perry made for my father … it's 50 years old."

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Later, he delivers "Another Sort of Love Story," dating from 1971, in which his father talks about having to have his beloved old dog — half Irish setter and half golden retriever — put to sleep. That's followed by the new song "Man & Dog," a comedic reflection on owning a dog in the city.

Another piece, "Father's Day," about the pleasures and pains of fatherhood, is followed by the hilariously titled number "Dilated to Meet You," addressed by the singer to his then unborn son:

"Even though there's trouble, even though there's fuss/We really think you'll like it here, we hope that you like us."

The piece is not without its flawed aspects: the correlations between the spoken and sung segments are not always resonant; the pacing sometimes drags despite its brief, 80-minute running time; and there is an inevitable air of self-indulgence. But at its best, Surviving Twin displays a moving love and respect, tinged with sharp-edged observations, from one generation for another. And with Father's Day just around the corner, it provides the perfect opportunity for some father/son bonding.

Cast: Loudon Wainwright III
Columns and Letters: Loudon Wainwright Jr.
Songs: Loudon Wainwright III
Director: Daniel Stern
Set designer: Emmie Finckel