★★★ 1/2
PlayMakers / PRC2
Kenan Theatre
Through Sep. 8

Loudon Wainwright III’s career now spans some 43 years. That’s not a bad showing for someone who never really made it out of the second echelon of singer-songwriters who came up during the 1970s. A flair for the comic, if not downright goofy, gained him early notice (in the improbable sing-along ditty “Dead Skunk”), and, when it turned to the autobiographical, his more confessional work was usually informed by an edged, acerbic sense of humor that kept it out of the realm of the maudlin.

Still, there was no confusing his songs with those of John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Townes Van Zandt or Steve Goodman. (An early critic did compare Wainwright with Bob Dylan, but that foolishness was settled soon enough.) The best of that generation ranged far and wide in their travels and imagination; their stunning, poetic wordcraft offered moments of revelation and insight into stories and characters that would have gone unsung, in more than one sense, without them.

By comparison, Wainwright stayed much closer to home. He knew a lot of great jokes, and his engaging stage presence sometimes disguised lyrics that vacillated between a plain-spokenness that’s much harder to pull off than it looks and the merely workmanlike. Still, in his best moments, Wainwright could tell us the sharpest of home truths without blinking, with a New Englander’s clear-eyed economy of expression (though he actually was born in Chapel Hill), served straight up, with no chaser save the lemon in his wit.

We spent the best portion of Wednesday evening with this latter craftsman in the opening night of SURVIVING TWIN, Wainwright’s intermissionless, 90-minute one-person show which begins the new season at PlayMakers Rep.

Though it’s billed as a world premiere, going by footage of concerts available on YouTube and elsewhere, Wainwright has been juxtaposing his songs against the family-based essays of his father, the late Life Magazine editor and essayist Loudon Wainwright Jr., over the past year, much as he does here. This, after he first combined the two on his April, 2012 CD, Older Than My Old Man.

The putative theme of this topical collection of tunes and texts, some new, others dating back to the 1980s and 70s, involves the often problematic relationships between father and sons. The opening song and title track to the collection, from his 2001 Last Man On Earth CD, starts us off with a sharp-eyed assessment of the singer’s life-long conflict and competition with his father:

But I started to get bigger and to win the ugly game
When I made a little money and I got a bit of fame

And I saw how this could wound him, yes, this could do the trick,
And f I made it big enough I could kill him off quick

That’s shortly followed by 2010’s “Dead Man,” which relates his experiences settling the personal effects of his father’s estate:

Got a dead man’s rod and a dead man’s reel
Dead man’s tuxedo with a lived-in feel.
Had a dead man’s desk and a dead man’s chair
No I ain’t dead yet, but I’m gettin’ there.

Those insights on mortality find common cause with a quoted passage from Loudon Jr.’s December 1983 essay in Life on the disconcerting absence—and presence—of his own, long-dead father:

He just arrives unbidden in the long-running film of my thoughts like Hitchcock in his pictures, and he looks for all these 40-plus years of disembodiment much like himself, big and sandy-haired with freckles on the backs of his hands, perhaps a bit more diffident in the way he holds himself than I remember.

He doesn’t stay long. As far as I can tell, his visits have no message. Yet even though years of therapy have led me to make the dark, whistling claim that he’s finally dead and gone, my father, who died when I was 17, continues to be my principal ghost; a lifelong eminence grise, and only my own end will finish it.

Wainwright’s subsequent song “Half Fist” finds clues of possible commonalities with that remote patriarch in a clutch of old photographs left behind.

But these potent early sequences are diluted as Surviving Twin diverts on several occasions into the stage equivalent of home movies.

It was entertaining to meet Loudon’s grandmother, the irreverent Nanny, in the 2005 song of the same name. Still, I’ll hazard a guess I wasn’t the only audience member who didn’t care that his was the only family in Bedford Village to own a Morris Minor—or a Humber Super Snipe—and really didn’t need to see color slides of both.

Loudon Jr.’s essay on his first bespoke suit from a London tailor—whose $175 price tag in 1965 translates to nearly $1,300 in 2013 dollars—was a lengthy and somewhat nose-rubbing diversion (even with Wainwright’s amusing British impersonation of his tailor, Mr. Perry) into a realm of privilege most audience members will likely never experience. And Michael Gramaglia’s brief film of Wainwright’s return to his (and his father’s) tony boarding school, St. Andrews in Delaware, had a similar, if more insubstantial, tinge; ghosts chasing ghosts down eerie, well-kept—and empty—halls.

The songwriter’s well-known whimsy, in the woeful pun of “Dilated to Meet You” (about the birth of son Rufus), “Being A Man,” “Dog and Man,” and others, seeks to leaven the serious notes. But instead of balancing the material here, they tend to make the evening’s throughline a lot sketchier. And it doesn’t help that, in seemingly reaching out to bridge the distance between his own son and himself, Wainwright ends the evening with some of its weakest lyrics, in “A Father And A Son” and “The Days That We Die:”

You’ll never change, neither will I,
We’ll stay the same till the days that we die.
I’ll never win, neither will you,
So what in this world are we gonna do

People hate change, they make a fuss,
They stay the same, people like us,
Folks wanna win, when they can choose,
But more important than that, folks don’t wanna lose

In the end, Surviving Twin is an engaging Loudon Wainwright III concert, in which we see a number of the artist’s strengths and a few of his long-term weaknesses laid bare on stage. At times it explores the possibly irreducible distance between fathers and sons. That only happens, though, when our host doesn’t get distracted by all those other stories and photographs he encounters as he flips, for just a bit too long, through his family album.