on: January 29, 2017
Remember the ’80s? Nora Burns sure does, and in her stage memoir “David’s Friend” she conjures up a vivid portrait of a carefree, hedonistic era that seeped away tragically and wrenchingly. But the downtown performer’s story isn’t a downer. On the contrary, it’s a celebration, both specific to Burns’ singular friendship with David (we never find out his last name) and redolent of an entire era that not that many are around to remember, and those who are…can’t.
Burns offers a straightforward, lively autobiography, one of clubs and coke and half-recalled hangovers.
The decade that Burns recounts isn’t a decade shared by everyone. It’s a pretty singular milieu: the glittery ’80s of gay and mixed discos, most prominently Studio 54, and the fabulous people who danced, drank, and drugged through it. On a mostly bare stage with helpful projections and videos (Len Whitney’s), and invaluably assisted by Billy Hough, who plays any number of gay boys she bumped up against, Burns offers a straightforward, lively autobiography, one of clubs and coke and half-recalled hangovers.
As a teenager in Boston, she quickly discovered an affinity for gay men, their music, and the pre-HIV/AIDS, party-all-you-can lifestyle they pursued. There’s an impolite name for this sort of woman that my editor probably won’t let me use, so let’s just say Burns quickly found out she was one, and embraced it. Growing up, she says, “My first word was ‘honey,’ and my pacifier was mid-century modern.” At 17 in Boston, she fell in (and, mostly platonically, fell in love) with David, who was similarly young and fun-loving, and dissimilarly charismatic—a “life magnet,” she says, one of those people who makes things happen just by their presence.
She relocated to New York, and he quit school and followed her. They moved into a series of cheap East Village apartments, and—hey, look, it’s 1980, and there’s disco and drugs and beautiful boys everywhere, and isn’t that Sylvia Miles in the corner? They bluffed their way into Studio 54 and became fixtures there, boogeying with celebrities, sleeping around, and putting things up their noses.
“When I met David,” she says, “my life was complete”—he became her first and only true best friend, “that person you share a secret language with.” It wouldn’t hurt for her to divulge a little more—what were their backgrounds, what were their parents like, what were their interests beyond disco, and how did they live and score so many drugs while under- or unemployed? But there’s plenty of fetching detail, from Burns’ truncated career as a stripper to the heady atmosphere of pre-HIV/AIDS New York. Just say “Boy Bar,” and for many in the La MaMa audience, a whole era and lifestyle come back to life.
For such a hard-partying young thing 35 years ago, Burns looks terrific, and while she admits she was too boozed up or drugged to remember everything, what she does recall is served up with wit and style. When HIV/AIDS first appeared, she says, it was met largely with denial, even joking—“we laughed about everything back then,” but “it unfolded like some terrible nightmare.”
Recounting the crisis, Burns frequently develops a catch in her throat, and I don’t think this is acting—it’s really that painful to conjure up, as anyone who was gay or gay-friendly in the ’80s can attest. As David got too sick for the downtown life, he moved upstate, grew outdoorsy, and became a poet—judging from the one effort Burns reads, a rather good one. As for Burns, she did subsequently develop an identity beyond that of David’s friend—a surprising, gratifying one, which won’t be revealed here.
Connie Fleming’s costumes are simple and appropriate, and Adrienne Truscott’s direction is mostly about moving Burns around—she dances quite a lot, and she still has the moves. This is an era that’s rapidly disappearing: Many who lived it aren’t around, and those who are were too wasted at the time to recall a lot of it. So when those of us who didn’t experience it ask about it, the survivors say, “Well, you had to be there.” The beauty of “David’s Friend” is, you didn’t have to be there. Burns was, and she brings it alive for the rest of us.
Running Time: 1 hour, no intermission.
Advisory: Not appropriate for children.
“David’s Friend” plays through February 5, 2017 at The Club at La MaMa in New York, NY. For more information and tickets, call 646-430-5374 or click here.