Fire in Dreamland
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Theater review by Helen Shaw
Two things ring very true in Rinne Groff’s faltering but beautifully performed dramedy Fire in Dreamland. The first is the titular event: In 1911, a Coney Island amusement park went up like a torch, killing nearly all its circus animals; Groff’s narrator-protagonist Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) reels off reams of the real Dreamland story to juxtapose that long-ago tragedy with the recent crisis of Superstorm Sandy. The second is Groff’s depiction of Kate’s suitor, Jaap (Enver Gjokaj), a European filmmaker with a friable sense of personal responsibility. He has talent—he wows Kate with a few minutes of his in-development movie about Dreamland—and his English is adorable (“Computer, you must go faster to be of use to me”). He means well! Surely it’s not his fault that his art-over-practicality attitude keeps hurting people?
Jones is a superstar, but her light is dimmed by her character’s function: playing straight woman first to Jaap and then to Lance (Kyle Beltran), a film student amusingly uncomfortable with everything. Director Marissa Wolf does strong work, and Groff’s script includes a number of elegant touches, like time hops and flashbacks that are cued by a man (Beltran again) with a film clapperboard. Clack! Kate thinks of her dying father. Clack! We’re back in her tiny apartment, where Jaap has just used her credit card. The play’s weakness comes from its lack of a serious central conflict. We wait for Kate to notice that Jaap is a bad boyfriend or at least that his movie hasn’t got a story; we wait for her to make up her mind in an atmosphere weirdly devoid of consequences. While she is torn between her social work and making art, the play itself grows halfhearted whenever it veers towards civic advocacy. Its main tragic moments, told in monologue, concern animals that have been dead for more than a hundred years. For a drama that's about focusing on reality and present suffering, there's more sentimental smoke than emotional fire.
Public Theater (Off Broadway). By Rinne Groff. Directed by Marissa Wolf. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 30mins. No intermission.