Loudon Wainwright III: Surviving Twin

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As we’ve written previously (here and here) I have been a major league fan of singer/songwriter/ actor Loudon Wainrwight III  since I was a teenager. Hearing that he was workshopping a new theatre piece called Surviving Twin at SubCulture I wanted to be among the first to see it, and last night I was.

The show alternates Wainwright’s bittersweet autobiographical songs with the writings of his dad, the popular Life magazine editor and columnist. The significance of the show’s title is the realization that LW3 inherited his father’s gifts and preoccupations as a writer. LW3 fans admire his craftsmanship, his humor, his introspection, his (often painful, naked) honesty, and his ability to entertain. The same themes drive both men: birth, death, love of family, regret, loss, hope, and….appreciation for a fine dog. The songs and spoken bits are augmented with home movies and family photos. Those accustomed to the up-close and intimate nature of Loudon’s shows will be shocked at how much MORE intimate this one manages to be.

The younger Wainwright’s half of the dialogue amounts to a concert featuring some of his best songs from his (ye Gods!) 45+ year career. “White Winos” from the 2001 album “Last Man on Earth” is an especially dazzling piece of work, practically a magic trick both musically and lyrically. As was his closing number “In C” (off 2012’s Older Than My Old Man Now). (Much like Irving Berlin, the song references the fact that Loudon only plays the white keys at the piano). Yes — piano. The multi-talented Wainwright does play that instrument, along with a couple of guitars, a banjo, and (on 1974’s “Dilated to Meet You”, written for the newborn Rufus), ukulele. The acted bits reveal Loudon to be equally dexterous at this related but different craft; I’d not seen him do it live before. Directed by Daniel Stern  (yes, that Daniel Stern, from Diner, City Slickers, etc) with maximum simplicity, he generously showcases his father’s word-wizardry, humbly implying in a way that his own gifts are an inheritance, that he is part of something greater than himself.)

That’s a rather cosmic conception, the sort of wisdom that usually dawns on one at twilight, when a lot of the strife is over and parents are buried in the grave. Loudon even looks the part these days — his white van dyke unavoidably conjuring the late Burl Ives, who was also both an actor and folksinger. This may make baby boomer Wainwright cringe, but I’d own it if I were him. It’s high time he play the “elder statesman/ American institution” role that belonged to Ives for decades. And lest ye fear that it’s all about age and dignity, Loudon did the whole show with his fly down (a happy accident. He was wearing his father’s old suit and the zipper broke. Keep it in the show, Loudon! It’s not just funny but it’s a nice metaphor for your life and art — and I mean that in the best way possible.)

There are three more pchances to see work-in-progress performances of Surviving Twin: June 10, 17 and 24 at SubCulture (45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012). All performances will begin at 7:30pm. Tickets ($30 in advance, $35 day of show) can be purchased at http://subculturenewyork.com/wainwright/ or 212.533.5470.

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