Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff
At The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Place
BS rating: D+
Show-Score rating: 55
Love stories usually have a catch – the couple’s opposite personalities, their professional or political differences, their disparate heritages. It’s those very complications that draw us into their romance. After all, who wants to sit through a play that is nothing but happy bedroom scenes followed by mushy dinner conversations. Those differences either melt the characters’ resistance to each other or bring their would-be romance to an end.
Playwright Rinne Groff certainly demonstrates a commitment to fill her love story with lots catches. In fact, the play itself melts down in the face of its complications. Let’s start with the title, “Fire in Dreamland.” On the surface, it relates to an effort by the play’s central characters to capture the horror of the fire at Coney Island’s Dreamland in 1911 in a movie focused on the terrified animals as victims. Jaap Hooft is a Dutch filmmaker who has a fake student visa; Kate (no last name) is a government worker, perpetually dissatisfied with her life choices. They meet near the ocean on the Boardwalk at Coney Island. I guess you can imagine how things proceed from there.
Actually, you probably cannot imagine how things progress because Ms. Groff brings in a set of complications that defy credibility and lack any perceptible insights into love, art, or the death of animals (lions, tigers or people). First there’s the difficulty they have communicating due to language differences: Jaap must be the only Dutchman that is not fluent in English. He consumed by the his inspiration for the film. forget the details involve in make it. Kate can’t get past the details – funding, permits, etc. But none of this gets in the way of what appears to be their growing romance. Then there is the possibility that Jaap had a sexual relationship with his well-to-do would-be assistant, Lance, a real film student who signs-out equipment from his film school for Jaap’s use. That does not get in the way of their romance. And then, I’m sure you guessed: the pregnancy.
These complications, and at least three or four more “mis-catches,” are framed in an inconsistent stylization. The first half of the play is short scenes that are literally clipped by the sound of a man pounding a film-scene-clap-board. Mid-scene, repeatedly, the lights isolate Kate or Jaap to capture their thoughts – later in the show these freezes focus on Kate’s obsession with the film’s story. It turns out Lance has been the clap-board man and he enters to save Kate when Jaap squanders his charm, but, of course not Kate’s love. Jaap loses his visa and is returning home with another woman as Lance and Kate appear to be developing a relationship – no clap-board scene changes but just as underdeveloped as everything else in this mish-mash of a play.
The actors and director do their best to make the play’s 90 minutes tolerable. Rebecca Naomi Jones plays her emotions with commitment and passion. Enver Glokaj brings a sort of handsome charisma to his character. Kyle Beltran plays Lance as a confused dork – a portrayal that explains Jaap’s ability to use him, but only confuses Kate’s eventual attraction to him, unless we are to believe her pregnancy is her motivation. Marissa Wolf, making her NYC directing debut, has done her best to make the play’s senselessness interesting. But, as any director will tell you, the play’s the thing and this one has just too many unconnected things.
The Public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, has adopted the practice of including a note in the program that tells us why we should like this play, or at least why he liked the work. This is the type of play that I left thinking “what made the theatre dramaturgs and play-readers recommend it for production?” Eustis tells us “Rinne has always been a beautiful sensitive cartographer of the human spirit.” More importantly, he cites his long-term relationship with the playwright. His first Public production was Ms. Rinne’s “The Ruby Sunrise” followed by “Compulsion.” It appears that, like the play’s main character, Mr. Eustis was also blinded by a relationship.