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Fire in Dreamland

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 16, 2018

Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

A promise to a dying parent and an unfortunate propensity for latching onto other people's dreams has led a woman down a series of blind alleys in search of her own life's passion. Will a chance meeting with a charming stranger help her to find a purpose at last, or will this be yet another fumbling misstep? That is the premise of Fire in Dreamland, Rinne Groff's choppy but nonetheless intriguing and well-acted play opening tonight at the Public Theater.

Fire in Dreamland takes place on Coney Island, not long after Hurricane Sandy tore through the region in 2012. But the storm itself serves less as a plot element than as a metaphor for the tempest-tossed life of a lost soul named Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), who has bounced from career to career while acquiring two master's degrees and a teaching certificate along the way. Her father, a longtime social worker at a methadone clinic, exacted a deathbed pledge from Kate that she likewise do something in service to others. But thus far, neither social work, nor teaching, nor coordinating a neighborhood playground initiative has provided any sense of satisfaction for her. When we first meet her, she is standing on the boardwalk on a chilly March morning, looking out at the ocean and quietly weeping.

Kate's lack of direction leaves her vulnerable to the handsome drifter who approaches her. He is Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj), a Dutch self-described filmmaker who is in New York on a student visa, ostensibly to attend a film school in the city. But he and the school have all but parted company as he pursues his own vision of making an art film about another disaster that struck Coney Island a century before, a fire that destroyed an amusement park known as Dreamland. Jaap, who is around 40 and some ten years older than Kate, is quite adroit at getting by in the world by using the drawing power of his charismatic personality. Predictably, it isn't long before he has moved into her apartment and is subsidizing his project with her credit card, while using camera equipment he has cadged from the film school with the help of a much younger student, Lance (Kyle Beltran), whom he has likewise seduced.

While Kate and Lance would seem to be to be merely victims here, one of the strengths the playwright brings to the table lies in her ability to take a familiar trope and provide it with unexpected twists and turns. None of the three characters is merely a stereotype, not the manipulative Jaap nor the floundering Kate or the innocent Lance. Jaap has learned to get by fully immersed in the self-serving world he has created for himself, yet he manages to touch others' lives without causing irreparable harm. Indeed, both Kate and Lance discover surprising strengths in themselves as they become allies and friends as Jaap drifts away.

Under Marissa Wolf's direction, all three actors leap fearlessly into their performances. One of the best sections of the play is an extended monolog that Kate delivers directly to the audience while Jaap sleeps nearby. In it, she strives to get us to share in her own vision of the film about the Dreamland fire, especially as it impacts the circus animals who perished in the blaze. Rebecca Naomi Jones as Kate absolutely throws herself into the narrative (she is woman; hear her roar!), and it is a luminous feat of storytelling. The role of Lance, who is barely mentioned for more than half of the play, takes on greater significance later on when he shows up at the apartment looking for the school's camera.

There definitely are times when the 100-minute intermissionless play would be well served with the trimming away of superfluous elements. There are several tangential scenes that do not add to our understanding of the characters or move the plot forward: a discussion about using Bitcoin as payment for editing services from someone in India, Kate's showing up dressed in a mermaid costume, and the tearing into an unseen wallboard to expose a hidden window. In their own way, these are interesting self-contained moments, but they are decidedly distracting and require us to circle back to return to the main story, as do a number of brief flashbacks and leaps forward that are accompanied by flashing lights and the abrupt sound of a movie clapboard. What makes it worth pushing past these diversions, however, are the very interesting characters and the thoroughly engaging interplay among the three excellent actors.

Fire in Dreamland
Through August 5
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street at Astor Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: