REVIEW: “Fire in Dreamland” Simmers
The fascinating history of Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park, obliterated by fire in 1911, serves as the background, and central allegory, for Rinne Groff’s new play “Fire in Dreamland”, directed by Marissa Wolf at The Public Theater in a joint commission with Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The convergence of history and art, and the way stories can capture us, are explored impressionistically in this funny, heartfelt, but ultimately emotionally-thin and mysteriously-drawn play.
Ersatz Dutch filmmaker Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj) travels to Coney Island to create a film about the storied conflagration that killed 60 animals from Dreamland’s circus menagerie and set a lion named “Big Prince” loose on the streets of Brooklyn, only to be shot dead by the police. In 2013, on the blanched boardwalk recovering from the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy, the smooth-talking Jaap meets Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a “disillusioned do-gooder” desiring to make a meaningful impact in the world following stints in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and as a low-level redevelopment bureaucrat.
Jaap soon enmeshes himself in Kate’s life, moving in to her apartment as the two become lovers and using her computer, and credit cards, to execute his loosely-defined film project. Antennae should but up at this point, but Kate nevertheless falls under Jaap’s spell, becoming obsessed with the history of the Dreamland fire and quitting her job to focus on a budget, script, and other production aspects for his film. Things then spin out of control as Jaap’s cloudy artistic vision and short-temper clash with Kate’s penchant for practicalities; his film school classmate Lance (Kyle Beltran) then shows up, revealing Jaap’s duplicitous machinations to Kate, who of these three lost souls, is the one to emerge from the imbroglio changed for the better.
Often funny, and occasionally transporting, this quirky tale remains as diffuse as Jaap’s film, lacking grounding and fully-articulated characters to give content to its drama. Ms. Jones is a standout, especially in her long, graphic monologue recounting the fire, but even she cannot triumph over Ms. Groff’s text, which contains too many furtive motivations and not enough stakes. The intriguing parallels between the destruction of Dreamland and present-day Coney Island are underdeveloped, and the play ends up operating better in dream-mode than in its own reality—simmering in a low-impact boil despite its explosive impetus.
Bottom Line: The convergence of history and art, and the way stories can capture us, are explored impressionistically in “Fire in Dreamland”, a funny, heartfelt, but ultimately emotionally-thin and mysteriously-drawn new play at the Public Theater. Rebecca Naomi Jones is a standout, but the play contains too many furtive motivations and not enough stakes.
“Fire in Dreamland”
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
New York, NY 10003
Running Time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: July 16, 2018
Final Performance: August 5, 2018