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Fire in Dreamland

The 1911 Coney Island fire and the attempt to make a movie about it in 2013 after Super Storm Sandy are paralleled in Rinne Groff’s new play at The Pubic Theater.

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Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones in a scene from Rinne Groff’s “Fire in Dreamland” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

David Kaufman

David Kaufman, Critic

Built in 1904, Dreamland was considered the most elegant and ambitious of Coney Island’s amusement parks–until it burnt to a crisp in 1911. A new play by Rinne Groff, Fire in Dreamland is ostensibly about the disaster, in which no humans but most of the animals perished. But to add that it’s set a little more than a century later–in 2013, or some months after Super Storm Sandy wreaked havoc on the east coast–should begin to suggest that there’s more going on here than, unfortunately, ever meets the eye.

The plot is stacked against poor Kate, the play’s heroine, who we first meet in a trench coat on the beach at Coney Island. With the sound of waves in the background, she’s crying as a handsome man, with a thick accent, approaches her–a Dutch film student named Jaap, who explains that he’s come here to make a film about the Dreamland fire. But instead of a filmmaker, Jaap proves to be a con man, who dupes not only Kate but also Lance, the one other character we meet, as well as other characters we only hear about.

Played out on a wooden boardwalk evoking Coney Island–the simple set and costumes have been designed by Susan Hilferty–Fire in Dreamland begs for any connections to be drawn between the Dreamland fire and what’s happening between Kate and Jaap and Lance a century later. If there are any connections, they are never made clear. And if there aren’t, what’s the point? Director Marissa Wolf has not found a way to bridge the enormous gap, or vacancy really, between the two different periods.

As written by Groff, the play means to appear itself like a film, with Lance sitting in shadow in the rear, clacking a clapperboard to signal scene changes, as bits of scenes are restarted time and again, with slight variations. Those variations may also be intended to be film-like, as if scenes were being shot and reshot numerous times.

Kyle Beltran, Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones in a scene from Rinne Groff’s “Fire in Dreamland” at The Public Theater (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

A film student himself, and presented as an “assistant producer” of Jaap’s film, Lance enters the action, if it can be called that, about midway through the 95-minute piece. As portrayed by Kyle Beltran, Lance seems in a perpetual state of bewilderment, which may reflect the contradictory things he learns from Kate regarding Jaap. There’s also the suggestion that Jaap slept with Lance before he met Kate: we certainly see Jaap in bed enough with Kate to know that they quickly developed a sexual relationship with each other. As Lance eventually tells Kate regarding Jaap, “I told you it’s like the Twilight Zone with him.”

Rebecca Naomi Jones has her finest moments when delivering Kate’s lengthy monologue, describing the actual fire in 1911, and focusing on the “biggest cat” of all, known as Black Prince: “Watching it in the movie of our dreams,” says Kate. Indeed, her entire monologue might be Jaap’s dream, since he’s asleep on the bed as she’s giving it, and it stops when Jaap wakes up. Dreams continue to fill the script, as when, in the end, Kate tells Lance, “The whole thing was just a bad dream.”

With a performance that’s as strong and sturdy as his handsome self, Enver Gjokaj is Jaap, delivering Jaap’s sometimes broken English and his misuse of certain words. From the wisp of a Masterpiece Theatre-like theme song introducing the play to the suspenseful music that later moves it along, the music and evocative sound designs are by Brendan Aanes. The versatile lighting is by Amith Chandrashaker.

Fire in Dreamland (through August 5, 2018)

The Public Theater

Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org

Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission

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David Kaufman
About David Kaufman (89 Articles)
David Kaufman has been covering the theater in New York since 1981. A former theater critic for the New York Daily News, he was also a long-time contributor to the Nation, Vanity Fair, the Village Voice and the New York Times. He is also the author of the award-winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, the best-selling Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, and his most recent biography, Some Enchanted Evenings: The Glittering Life and Times of Mary Martin.

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