Queer pioneer: Nora Burns delivers zany, subversive LGBTQ theater

The cast of "The Village! A Disco Daydream"
The cast of “The Village! A Disco Daydream”
Noah Fecks

The Village in downtown Manhattan has a rich history of brash innovators in LGBTQ theater. Queer theater geeks are no doubt familiar with Robert Patrick, who wrote scores of plays with gay themes often performed in the 1960s at Caffe Cino, the birthplace of Off Off Broadway. Likewise Charles Ludlam and Everett Quinton’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which staged absurdist, comic gems like “The Mystery of Irma Vep” and “Whores of Babylon” in the ’70s and ’80s.

Another notable is Charles Busch, whose Theatre in Limbo churned out campy, gender-bending satires in the ’80s such as “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” and “Psycho Beach Party.” He’s still a fixture in the New York theater scene.

Nora Burns.
Nora Burns.Patrick McMullen

But there’s one theater-maker, however, who has largely flown under the radar and deserves to join this queer pioneer pantheon: Nora Burns. For decades, she has crafted a distinct brand of witty, irreverent queer performance, whether as a founding member of the comedy troupes The Nellie Olesons and Unitard, or producing “Candied Camera,” a wacky variety show that aired on Manhattan Cable TV in the early ’90s (archived in the Fales Library at NYU, no less). 

Her other credits as a playwright, standup comedian, and actor on both stage and screen are too numerous to detail here. These achievements, it must be said, are all the more remarkable in an industry dominated by men. 

On July 10, Burns is back with a pair of plays, “The Village! A Disco Daydream” and “David’s Friend,” running in repertory at the SoHo Playhouse. Directed by Adam Pivirotto, the pieces are revivals of past productions that were ardently received.

“The Village!,” inspired by Burns’s favorite play, “Our Town,” is billed as “If Thornton Wilder had lived on Christopher Street.” The play transports theatergoers back to 1979, the year she moved to New York City, where a group of colorful characters (including steamy go-go boys) navigate the vagaries of romance, dreams, and drugs to an intoxicating disco beat. In addition to writing and producing, she even makes a cameo onstage. The spirited ensemble features Jack Barrow, Chuck Blasius, Kevin Boseman, Glace Chase, Ashley Chavonne, Antony Cherrie, Eileen Dover, JMV, Chris Patterson Rosso, and Drew Timberlake Hill.

According to Burns, “The Village!” originated as a reading in 2019 and was slated to open in May 2020. And then, of course, that got scrapped due to the COVID pandemic.

“I wasn’t even going to bother bringing it back,” she recalled in a recent phone interview. “I was like, oh, I don’t even know if it’s that good. But Cynthia Nixon had come to the reading and was like, oh, it’s really fun. You should do it.” The show found a home at Dixon Place starting in October 2022, where it went on to enjoy three sold-out runs.

As Burns tells it, she had worked with 31-year-old Pivirotto back when he was a stage manager. He had been a film major, and she was impressed with his creativity and maturity beyond his years.

“He’s really cool, he is really smart,” she said of Pivirotto. “He’d never directed anything before, but I asked him if he would direct it. He’s just freaking unbelievable.” 

Burns also struck a kinship with choreographer Robin Carrigan, a woman around her age who shares her quirky taste in music and spent her career doing campy gay musicals in New York City.

“I always loved her sensibility,” Burns said. “So I was like, I want this to be completely campy fun. I always say, I do the kind of theater that I want to see, and I want to see fun, campy, silly meta dance numbers.”

According to Burns, Carrigan and Pivirotto became this “magic combination” working together. 

“It’s just to entertain ourselves,” Burns thought at the onset. “It certainly went well, and it sold out. So we brought it back and it went well again and sold out again. So we brought it back again, and same thing.” 

“David’s Friend” was a hit when it debuted at La Mama in 2017, garnering a rave in the New York Times. But the run could not be fully extended because the theater was closing for major renovations. The work was originally developed with director Adrienne Truscott.

Nora and David in "David's Friend."
Nora and David in “David’s Friend.”Patrick McMullen

The piece is essentially a solo show written and starring Burns, set in New York City in the wild, dark 1980s, and loosely inspired by her profound friendship with David, an extraordinary, model-handsome gay man. The bittersweet, multimedia extravaganza is jam-packed with disco, drag queens, fag hags, and drugs (are you detecting a theme, here?) set against a backdrop of the AIDS crisis. Adult entertainer Ricky Romano makes an appearance.  

“It had been a really emotionally draining show to work on, and I’d been working on it for a year, so I think I was also just spent,” Burns explained. “But I always thought, oh, it would be nice to bring it back.” Given the complementary subject matter, she believed it would work well to stage them as a pair, but on alternating nights.

When I asked Burns to tell me about David, who died from AIDS complications in 1994 at age 31, her tone had an air of wistful longing.

“The minute we met, it was like we spoke the same language. It was like this mad kind of love affair. And we were sort of inseparable after that.”

For a while, they lived together in the West Village on Greenwich Street over The International Stud, a gay bar immortalized by Harvey Fierstein in “Torch Song Trilogy.” After David became severely ill, he moved to California, and she saw very little of him towards the end. “Everything was so chaotic and weird. It was a strange time.” she said.

Midway through her recollections of David, her voice began to quiver. 

Sorry, I cry all the time when I think about him. My big challenge doing this piece is not to cry because it’s not like a memorial. It’s a show.” 

Her bond with David is also celebrated in her Instagram account, created during the first run of “David’s Friend.” She considers it a sort of “time capsule” of that fraught, heady era.

“What makes me feel something is humor, and that’s what brings out the humanity,” she continued. “So I’m never trying to grab people’s emotions, I’m just telling my story and trying to make it as entertaining as possible…The things that affect me are the things that are not trying to. They sneak up on you and all of a sudden you’re like, oh my God, I’m fucking sobbing and I have no idea why.” 

Burns describes her comedic style as somewhat cynical and bitchy. Her favorite kind of humor is making fun of people she hates or things that bother her. Often under the guise of parody. 

Even after all these years, Burns has flashes of self-doubt about her talents and the strength of her work. 

“I have no idea if we’ll keep up the same momentum, if we’ll draw another audience,” she said, considering the boffo previous runs of both shows. “We will continue until we fail miserably and no one comes.”

“The Village! A Disco Daydream” |David’s Friend (running in repertory)|SoHo Playhouse|15 Vandam St.| $36 ($60 package of both shows) |Through August 10 | SoHoPlayhouse.com