The designer Susan Hilferty has constructed a very convincing boardwalk in Rinne Groff’s play Fire in Dreamland, which opened Monday night at New York’s Public Theater. You can almost feel the angled wooden slats, warmed by the sun, under the actors’ feet.
This intriguing if uneven play, directed by Marissa Wolf, contrasts two events in two different eras. First is the present-day relationship of Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj). Then there is the 1911 fire on Coney Island that destroyed the amusement park Dreamland, endangering and extinguishing the lives of many performing animals.
Others, like a little troupe of Shetland ponies, made it out, and the most dramatic story belongs to Black Prince, a black-maned lion, whose fate was sealed as Dreamland burned. This account, written in 1997, conveys it most evocatively, and the play’s description is very similar.
Wolf and Hilferty, and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker, convey the menacing orange glow of fire, the popping of many boardwalk bulbs in extreme heat. The switches from past to present are marked by stark spotlights that take us into Kate’s head, as she wonders what on earth her relationship with Jaap is all about.
Honestly, we scratch our heads trying to figure out the same thing. There is no doubt both are attractive and determined, and so the first strange thing, given her self-reliance and independence is how and why Kate gives herself quite so quickly to a relationship with Jaap.
He’s making a film about Coney Island, where Kate lives, then and now, and very soon alarm bells are ringing in your head as he begins to occupy her apartment, her waking hours (she gives up her job to help him make the movie), and then the contents of her wallet. Jones is an effectively nervy mix of singular focus and romantic chance-taking; Gjokaj melds a sexy swagger and hot temper.
As soon as Jaap enters her life, extremely charmingly, Kate loses some bearings and gains some others. The two are separated by language and cultures, but hope romance and their shared artistic passions will help make them equals and partners.
Jaap also breaks the heart of Lance (Kyle Beltran), his assistant producer, who—in a strange B-road the play goes down with mixed, baffling results—has a thing for Jaap too. No, Lance says, he isn’t gay, he’s Jaap-sexual. The play keeps strong-arming the events of 1911 into the present day; the wildness of Black Prince comes to shadow and influence Kate.
She is striving for independence, financial and spiritual, and Lance also wants a freedom from his feelings for Jaap. But the play doesn’t really know how to coherently explain Jaap and Kate’s relationship, and what it is really about. Left even more unexplained is Lance and Jaap’s. For all of them, maybe it’s transaction, maybe it’s salvation, maybe it’s attraction, maybe it’s love; maybe all of that.
The play breathes easiest in its witty and sometimes silly moments of linguistic misunderstanding between the three characters (my favorite was a lightning exchange of “Jaap” and “yep”), and in its visually arresting symbolic immersions in those raging flames and wild animals in peril during the 1911 fire. In a stunning dress, Kate becomes a participant in the present-day Mermaid Parade, and a showgirl from many years back.
Quite what that night of flames and terrible animal suffering can teach the squabbling and challenging characters of Fire in Dreamland remains a little opaque. Maybe all of them are captive, under threat, and needing some kind of escape or release. Whatever, we certainly hear Kate roar.
Fire in Dreamland is at the Anspacher, Public Theater, until Aug. 5. Book here.