During the 1911 fire that burned Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park to the ground, one of the animal attractions, a black lion, with his hind quarters ablaze, scrambled up the staircase to the top of the roller coaster, which made him “a perfect flaming target against the clear night sky” for the mob shooting at him from below.
Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) tells us this vivid story about halfway through “Fire in Dreamland,” a three-character play by Rinne Groff that’s about three disasters in Coney Island.. The play takes place in Coney Island in 2013, the year after the flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy. The third disaster is Kate’s love life.
There is such innate drama, such elemental power, in fire and flood, and such great potential theatricality in a lion named Black Prince aflame in the night sky roaring “this anguished, heart-rending roar,” as Kate tells us accompanied by a soaring score and dramatic lighting. But, for all the potentially great metaphors at play, and a competent production that features a meticulous design and some fine acting, there are too few moments in “Fire in Dreamland” as engaging as Kate’s monologue about the fire, and too much that gets in the way of a satisfying drama.
On the surface, “Fire in Dreamland” is about the romance between Kate, who works for a public-private partnership trying to help Coney Island recover from Hurricane Sandy, and Jaap (Enver Gjokaj) a Dutch filmmaker who has come to Coney Island to make a movie about the 1911 fire. They meet on the boardwalk in March. She’s been crying, because it’s the anniversary of her father’s death; he gently wipes clean her smudged mascara — using a sweatshirt she gives to him (subtly foreshadowing what will be the lopsided nature of their relationship.) They wind up in bed that night. Over the next seven months, the relationship takes some twists and turns. Kate decides to quit her job and help Jaap make his movie. The playwright mines humor out of Jaap’s tenuous hold on the English language, and Gjokaj makes Jaap just charming enough so we understand Kate falling for him.
But slowly, we see the complications. Kate tries to be practical in getting the movie made; Jaap is focused on not compromising his vision. He is overconfident and underprepared.
“You would rather have a dream than something that actually exists,” Kate says.
“A dream exists,” Jaap says. “As long as I keep moving toward it, it exists.”
Jaap also doesn’t act like a conventional boyfriend. He disappears for days. There’s also Lance (Kyle Beltran), who is a film student whom Jaap has corralled to work on the film with him. Pay close enough attention, and you realize there was something more going on between Lance and Jaap. In many ways, Jaap is not what Kate believed him to be; by the end, you don’t have to pay close attention to realize this.
The problem for me with “Fire in Dreamland” is that there is too little about the 1911 fire (because what we do learn is so fascinating), and there is way too much about the movie they want to make about it. Worse, the relationship between Kate and Jaap is presented with a stylized theatricality that largely undermines any emotional connection we might develop with the characters. The action is not linear. The lights flicker, there’s a clack-clack of a clapperboard, and we’re brought to a moment a few minutes ahead in time or a few days behind, or a flashback eight years earlier that lasts only a few seconds. Through most of the play, Beltran sits off in the rear with the clapperboard, making the clack-clack sound. What is the play saying with these imitation jumpcuts – that life and love are like a movie that doesn’t get made?
What, indeed, is the point of any of the metaphors? That love is like a fire that suffocates a baby elephant (another true anecdote from 1911 that Lance tells), or a hurricane that floods the bathroom? That dreams are not real, and that longing for and living with a dreamboat is inevitably a disaster?
Excuse the snark. I do not doubt that Groff has a serious artistic purpose. But a line that got my attention in “Fire in Dreamland” was one by Jaap in response to a comment by Kate: “I know what all these words mean, but I still don’t understand what you are saying.”
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Fire in Dreamland
Written by Rinne Groff
Directed by Marissa Wolf
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Enver Gjokaj, and Rebecca Naomi Jones
Scenic Design by Susan Hilferty
Costume Design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker
Original Music & Sound Design by Brendan Aanes
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Fire in Dreamland is scheduled to run through August 5, 2018