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A CurtainUp Review
Fire In Dreamland

There was like this worker at the Animal Pavilion; she has this awesome mermaid costume. They think that right when the fire started, she must've rounded up all the Shetland ponies. Here. She's wearing this ridiculous shiny hoo-ha, but she didn't let that stop her. Or maybe that's what made her brave. Like she was wearing the costume so she was like I guess that's what mermaids do: Save earth creatures.
— Kate, who upon finding a treasure trove of material about the Dreamland fire, comes to identify with that heroic worker in the mermaid costume.
Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones (Photo:Joan Marcus)
It's not unusual for Rinne Groff's name to crop up in any discussion of adventurous female playwriting voices. While playwrights haven't exactly embraced plays about science and math Groff dove right in with one of her earliest plays The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem. My CurtainUp colleague Les Gutman liked the way it managed "to convey a striking and yet earth-bound sense of what it means to be a mathematician, without either taking itself seriously or letting the underlying humanity escape.

With Ruby Sunrise, the first of Groff's two previous playss at the Public Theater (Compulsion came in 2011) she returned to that under represented arena, again doing so by going back in time. While neither of these plays hit that perfect 10 bull's eye, both were entertaining and well worth seeing.

Fire and Dreamland, is Groff's first play presented on Lafayette Street that's not directed by the Public's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis. It's therefore tempting — but wrong — to assume that if Mr. Eustis were at the helm this would be a less disappointing theatrical outing. Marissa Wolf, who also directed Fire in Dreamland's world premiere at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, has done her best to help it achieve the timeliness and meaningful depth to which it aspires. Thus, the problem is in the fault line that permeates Groff's plot.

That plot once again involves a look at the past. In this case, the disastrous fire that totally destroyed Coney Island's Dreamland Amusement Park in 1911 is replayed in the same locale a hundred years later in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Given the 3-member cast, with the third actor not an integral part of the action until late in the play, don't expect a crowd filled disaster story. Instead, what you get is a love story with the past and present disasters sandwiched in for color and relevance.

Jaap (Enver Gjokaj is a Dutch film maker in New York on a student visa to make a film about the 1911 fire and Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), an idealistic and yet pragmatic New York non-profit bureaucrat with several graduate degrees who's yearning for something to be really passionate about (she did a Teach For America stint but dislikes kids). It's evident from their meeting on the Coney Island boardwalk shortly after Hurricane Sandy that she'll find that passion in the attractive and charismatic Jaap as well as his film with its focus on the mistreatment and suffering of animals.

So far so so good. Kate and Jaap become a couple. Her discovery of a treasure trove of information about the Dreamland fire —especially a heroic animal worker in a mermaid costume — and enthusiasm for the film in the making intensifies their bond. But it also triggers differences about his vision for the ending and hers, as well as their relationship's exploitative aspects.

It's fairly obvious that he's using her for money and help with his ability to stay in this country. But there's a flip side to that coin. She's using him to give new meaning to her life by being part of the film, and a controlling one at that.

The way the script jumps around makes the way this all plays out become increasingly muddled and weighed down by lenghty metaphors and monologues. What's more, it's difficult for the audience to become as fired up about the images in Kate's discovered material about the fire or the film in the making, since it's more tell than show.

Rebecca Naomi Jones, who's been a powerful presence in both straight plays and musicals, is certainly giving her all to the role of Kate. She delivers the dauntingly long monologues Ms. Groff has written for her with letter perfect verve. One can only hope that she doesn't damage her vocal chords during a scene when she is required to roar like the lion Jaap has captured on camera in the zoo.

Enver Gjoka is also quite good as the grandiose charmer. But the big acting surprise comes from Kyle Beltran. He spends most of the play as a silent, shadowy figure upstage doing nothing but clacking a clapper device like the ones used by film makers to signal the end of a scene. This device adds a smart directorial touch but keeps Kyle Beltram off stage too long. It's only when he finally comes on stage as Jaap's wealthy fellow film student Lance that the engaging story and themes hinted at in the early part of the play resurface.

The production values are also commendable. Susan Hilferty ably doubles as scenic designer and costumer (Kate gets to wear two stunning mermaid cstumes). Hilferty's spare but effective set is evocatively accented by Amith Chandrashaker's lighting as well as Brendan Aanes' original music and sound.

Though wisely trimmed by ten minutes since its early previews,Fire in Dreamland still fails to really clarify and fluidly dramatize the connection between the Dreamland fire and Hurricane Sandy, or convincingly explore connections between people from different worlds and the decisions we make about how to survive and live meaningfully in a disaster prone world.

Rinne Groff has shown herself capable of much more than is on display here. Here's hoping she gets back on that track for her next visit to the Public Theater.

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Fire In Dreamland by Rinne Groff
Sirected by Marissa Wolf
Cast: Kyle Beltran (Lance), Enver Gjokaj (Jaap Hooft), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Kate)
Scenic and costume design by Susan Hilferty
Lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker
Original music and sound design by Brendan Aanes
Stage Manager: Buzz Cohen
Approx running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Public's Anspacher Theater, 420 Lafayette Street
From 6/19/18; opening 7/16/18; closing 8/05/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 7/12 press preview

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