Telling a story seems like a simple thing, but in Rinne Groff’s plays, storytelling is often wrapped up in relations of power: Who controls the narrative? Who owns memory, or history? Whose version of an event, or a life, becomes official record? How do we use stories to negotiate through our own emotions and problems? In earlier works like The Ruby Sunrise (about the early days of television and its conversion into a corporate-owned mass medium in the 1950s) and Compulsion (about the American versions of The Diary of Anne Frank), Groff successfully yoked these questions to rich, damaged characters in plays that worked on both an intellectual and a narrative level. But Fire in Dreamland never seems to find firm footing: Its characters feel shallowly unpleasant rather than compellingly flawed. And its story, about a romantic/artistic partnership between Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), an unfulfilled New Yorker, and Jaap (Enver Gjokaj), a suspiciously charismatic European would-be auteur, set in a roughly present-day (2013) Coney Island still grappling with the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, never feels fleshed-out. It feels like a sparse frame around Jaap’s film, also called “Fire in Dreamland”–a film whose story we are told by the characters, but which is never made beyond its trailer, and which we only see through reactions to the footage by Kate, Jaap, and Jaap’s assistant producer, Lance (Kyle Beltran), a rich kid going for his third certificate at a third-rate film school who still hopes to get a real film degree someday.
Six months or so after Superstorm Sandy, Coney Island is still a mess, especially the housing projects close to the water whose electrical and heating equipment were destroyed by the hurricane. Kate is a mid-level bureaucrat at a “public-private partnership” that’s building new parks funded by corporations; the projects are ostensibly “giving back to the community,” ostensibly–a community she’s moved to–but not really helping the material conditions of people’s day-to-day lives. She’s a little bored and resentful, but she’s reached a point in her life where she needs to stop being a dilettante and accomplish something; she’s already gone to grad school three times, washed out of two other careers (teaching, via Teach for America, which she left because it turns out she hates children, and social work), and feels like she’s failed at the deathbed promise she made her father to do something meaningful with her life (a promise we see several times in hokey brief flashbacks). She’s also incredibly lonely–she doesn’t have friends, it seems, just an ex whom she gets back in touch with only when she needs something from him. When she meets Jaap on the anniversary of her father’s death on the Coney Island boardwalk, she’s a person desperate for a cause, and Jaap drops one in her lap. Jones, a commanding performer, gives Kate an animating passion that makes you believe her commitment to this project, and to Jaap, but even she can’t entirely sell the full journey Kate takes.
Jaap could be seen as the romanticized ideal of the monomaniac auteur, so committed to making his film (don’t call it a movie, please) about the massive 1911 fire that destroyed the Coney Island amusement park Dreamland that he doesn’t care how many other people are hurt/inconvenienced/bankrupted to do it. (He’s delighted at the ravages to the Coney Island beach because the disappearance of modern accoutrements makes it possible for him to shoot there.) He could also be seen as a semi-sociopathic con artist who uses everyone he meets, spinning elaborate stories to keep them apart from one another and keep all his balls in the air. Gjokaj is charismatic enough to sell the idea that Jaap believes at least some of his own bullshit, but also gives Jaap a calculating canniness that makes it not entirely a surprise when Lance, who is much-spoken-of but not actually seen till late in the play, turns up as a reality check, and balls start dropping quickly. (Beltran’s laconic pragmatism serves as a funny counterpoint to Jones’s manic idealism.)
There is something intriguing, if underdeveloped, in the ideas underpinning Fire in Dreamland: It’s a play centering around a cultural artifact that is mostly imaginary, presented through characters’ relationships to it, and whose story would be virtually impossible to represent onstage–since it’s about an amusement park fire and most of its characters are circus animals who died in that fire. A play where the actual narrative and character choices are much less interesting–and more predictable in a conventional-Hollywood-film way–than the stories that the characters want to tell (in Jaap’s movie, and in a different but related movie that Kate and Lance may be partnering on by the end of the play). Groff and director Marissa Wolf engage with the intersection of mediums in several ways. One of them is the way film versus theater scenes are constructed; scenes are punctuated here with the clap of a film-set clapperboard, and frequently jump just slightly in time, or into split-second flashbacks. Another is the way an individual storyteller conceives and limns a tale versus the way it’s shot on film, as each of the characters at times narrates for the audience a segment of “Fire in Dreamland” the film (and these monologues, directed simply by Wolf and scored with Brendan Aanes’s excellent original music, are the most engaging parts of the piece). But I don’t think Fire in Dreamland (the play) successfully builds these ideas into a compelling whole, even though many of the production elements (in addition to Aanes, Susan Hilferty’s set and costumes, especially the Mermaid Parade costumes that walk the perfect line between tacky and magical), and all of the performances, are wonderful.
I’d like to see it as an intentionally, almost blatantly conventional narrative, with the clacks of the scene clapper limning the story beats one would expect–from flashbacks to deathbed promises to the pregnancy-test-left-on-the-