In the middle of a May night in 1911, Dreamland—the most extravagant of the generally extravagant Coney Island amusement parks, with a million electric light bulbs illuminating its hulking central tower, rides and attractions and all manner of wild animals on display in a big top—burned to the ground. As keepers rushed to the park and tried to lead the animals to safety, a giant lion named Black Prince escaped into the streets of Brooklyn, where he was shot by police.
In 2018, that true story—and especially that fire—forms the basis for Rinne Groff’s new play, Fire in Dreamland, which explores the gulf between dreams and reality, between devastation and redemption, and which opened tonight at the Public Theater.
It’s an interesting and beautifully staged play, directed by Marissa Wolf, with a fantastic central performance from Rebecca Naomi Jones, that’s less than entirely fulfilling only because Groff tries to squeeze quite so much into its 90 minutes. There are so many plots and subplots and arguments and insights flying past, it can feel sometimes feel like you’re stuck inside a Hall of Mirrors.
Jones’s character is Kate, a stalled-out do-gooder living and working in Coney Island after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy. She’s employed by some sort of public-private partnership that builds playgrounds for neighborhood children—one of the recurring jokes is that no one really knows what any of that means—and feeling lost when she meets an artistic and passionate European, Jaap (a convincing Enver Gjokaj), who has come to Coney Island to work on his film about the 1911 fire.
Kate falls for Jaap, and for his project. She becomes more and more interested in the century-old tragedy, even as she loses interest in rebuilding from the more recent one. She quits her job, she invites Jaap to move in, and the project is moving forward—or so it seems. Jaap has a beautiful vision for his film, and he has a few minutes of footage, but he doesn’t yet have his ending. Kate has moved into producer mode, and she’s determined to make this film happen.
In a nod to the film at the heart of the story, Groff and Wolf have given the script a certain filmic flourish. There are jump cuts and cutaway, moments when a narrative scene breaks into a flashback or reminiscence, then jumps back. These cuts are marked by the sharp snap of a clapperboard, handled by an upstage actor who is eventually revealed to be Lance (Kyle Beltran, appealing creepy and awkward), the film student who’s also been working with Jaap.
These cutaways take us to moments in Kate’s life, like when her father died and she promised him on his deathbed that she’d do something useful. They take us to fantasies of what the film will look like. And they take us to moments in 1911, when there was the fire in Dreamland. For a while, Kate becomes the animal worker in a shiny mermaid costume, who led a group of Shetland ponies to safety.
Amid all of this back and forth, plots and subplots, we also start to get the impression that Jaap isn’t quite what he seems. At first we wonder, vaguely, but then are put back at ease. Then we wonder more. Eventually, Kate does, too—although a bit too late.
It’s never quite clear, to us, to Kate, maybe even to himself, whether Jaap is a grifter or a dreamer. He enthralls Kate for a time, and Lance before her, and eventually, later, another woman, and his film never quite gets made. But is that a scam, or is that artistic purity? “You would rather have a dream than something that actually exists,” Kate tells him. “A dream exists,” he responds. “As long as I keep moving toward it, it exists.”
The whole thing is dreamlike, this cyclone of moments and scenes, of eras and characters. It transpires on a dreamlike set, the worn decking of washed-out boardwalk, with a rippled upstage wall that sometimes glows blue, for the water, or red and orange, for that horrible fire. (The sets and costumes are by Susan Hilferty, the lighting by Amith Chandrashaker.)
Groff’s last work at the Public, the excellent and moving Compulsion, was a bit dreamlike, too, about the mania of the man who brought Anne Frank’s story to America, and featuring a marionette as Anne. But the well-known, tragic real story at its base kept it grounded.
Here, there’s real-world tragedy, too. But the experience ends up being, perhaps, a bit like that fire: thrilling and exciting, and just too much to take in.