Like a nightingale caught up in a footrace with a bioengineered cheetah — having forgotten its wings and its voice in a befuddled attempt at high-tech speed — contemporary theater can often feel like it’s limping in the footsteps of its younger, flashier siblings, film and TV, struggling to keep up. Big producers point their money cannons at more and more eye-popping material, these days often plucked from the movies to begin with, and so we end up with Broadway-bound sparkling red windmills and giant animatronic gorillas: a glut of pseudo-cinematic spectacle — often image-rich and imagination-poor — that makes it especially poignant when a play like Rinne Groff’s Fire in Dreamland comes along.
Now at the Public under the generally graceful direction of Marissa Wolf, Fire in Dreamland is a play about a film, but really it’s a play about the untrammeled power of the imagination: to beguile and seduce, to construct worlds and provide purpose, to sustain, to deceive, and to revive. Though Groff is interested in intermingling forms — her transitions are all jump cuts, signaled by the loud clack of a slate board wielded by one of the play’s three actors — her story’s central fascination with the act of its own telling seems to me to be what roots Fire in Dreamland as a piece of theater. It’s a play in which the greatest events are all narrated to us, passionately described rather than recreated. Though its subject matter might have made for a compellingly meta short film, and though its rhythm — which often hops or meanders rather than drives — at times makes it feel novella-like rather than grippingly dramatic, it still aspires, to paraphrase one of its characters, to whisper its story into our ears. That implies a unique fusion of physical presence and activated mind’s eye that only a play requires, and that only a play can provide.
The players here are the disenchanted Kate (an effusive, hardworking Rebecca Naomi Jones), the charismatic Jaap (the square-jawed Enver Gjokaj, with a Dutch accent and an artiste’s disdain for practicalities), and the nervously skeptical Lance (Kyle Beltran, armed with slate board, in excellent comic form). Jaap (it’s pronounced “Yahp”) is trying to make a film about the catastrophic fire that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park in 1911. A few months after Superstorm Sandy, he meets Kate — a smart, lost young woman with more degrees than direction — down on the still-battered beach near the site of his movie’s story. Kate hates her job administering corporate-sponsored “good” works (they just launched a “Privatized Playground Initiative,” she tells Jaap despondently), and she’s still mourning her social-worker father and struggling with his deathbed appeal that she do something with her life that has “meaningful impact on the world.” She’s desperate for something to believe in, and, man of vision that he is, Jaap is in the market for believers. “So right from the start,” to steal Kate’s opening remarks to us as she tries to describe the initial shots of Jaap’s film, “you pretty much know that everything is probably going to go very wrong.”
The film is Jaap’s, but the play is Kate’s, tracing her arc from disillusion to delusion and finally to newfound wakefulness and purpose. When we first meet her, Kate badly needs a dream, and Fire in Dreamland is partly about the dangers of throwing in with a master dreamer, the kind of soaring fantasist-slash-egoist who needs earthly disciples but will inevitably spurn earthly concerns. “I would rather have five minutes of unfinished, life-change amazing [film] than any bullshit, budgeting, piece of shit,” Jaap snaps at Kate during a gloves-off scene when the pair, long since committed both artistically and romantically, can no longer avoid facing how frayed the cloth of their dream has become. Kate, longing to bring to actual, tangible life the incredible scenario that Jaap has whispered in her ear — and that we’ve had tantalizingly conjured for us in narrative form by Jones — has thrown herself headlong into the thankless role of producing, and loving, a genius. But for all his energy and magnetism, not to mention his charmingly clueless American idioms, this “genius” is also a guy in search of a green card and a dropout of the New York City School of Film — yes, the one with “the posters on the subway.” He’s got no phone (he borrows one), no money (he borrows that too), and no patience for anything that compromises the glory of his vision. He would have made a great preacher, but a director’s got to be half evangelist and half Clydesdale, and Jaap is a master of avoiding the work required to turn fantasy into reality.
The turns of Fire in Dreamland aren’t shocking, but as per Kate’s “everything is probably going to go very wrong” setup, they aren’t necessarily meant to be. We can see Jaap’s charming duplicitousness — which is monomaniacal but not malicious — coming from a mile away, just like we can see what’s cooking when Kate spends too long in the bathroom and emerges nervous. Being slightly ahead of the story in instances like this feels understandable: After all, the play is suspended somewhere between Kate’s present and her past, and so some of it has the rosy tint of enchantment unfolding in real time, and some of it has the steely glare of 20/20 hindsight. But every so often the narrative thread slackens, and a point that feels evident is played for revelatory effect, as when Kate and Lance — the mousy film student who, also beguiled by Jaap, comprises his entire crew — have a eureka moment about connecting their project to the real “people on Coney Island right now [who are] making a comeback from something devastating in their lives.” Groff and Jones try to play this scene as a major turning point for Kate, who’s slowly emerging from Jaap’s shadow to rediscover her own creative autonomy. But there’s a disappointingly duh feeling to Kate’s realization, especially when she and Jaap have already drawn the obvious comparison between Superstorm Sandy and of the devastation of the 1911 fire in the play’s opening scenes — and when Fire in Dreamland’s own marketing materials have made sure that we, its audience, have that parallel firmly planted in our minds before even entering the theater.
If Fire in Dreamland falters a bit in its tale — which remains compelling overall thanks to Groff’s humor and sensitivity and the production’s game trio of actors — it does so by never quite grabbing us fully by the throat. It has us firmly and kindly by the hand, and it leads us on a largely lovely journey, but there’s pain and shock and betrayal along that path, at least for the characters, and in Wolf’s rendering we’re kept largely insulated from these gut feelings. Jones, for example, is wonderful to watch as she takes us through one of the play’s longest spells of narration, a spirited roller-coaster of a speech in which she describes the main thrust of Jaap’s film: the proliferation of the fire and the horrific fate of Dreamland’s trained animal population, especially Black Prince, a magnificent black lion whose tragic, spectacular death Jaap envisions as his masterpiece’s conclusion. In these moments of telling, of whispering into our ears and making us see, Jones and Wolf do their best work, but in rawer moments, that work can feel stiffer, less vividly alive. At the play’s climax, after Jaap throws a cruelly calculated insult at the diligent, passionate Kate, she literally roars in response (“It’s the same roar as … the lion in the Fire in Dreamland film,” Groff notes in the stage directions). A moment like this is a gift for an actor, but Wolf and Jones play it safe. Jones sounds like an actor who knows how to use her diaphragm to preserve her voice, not like a woman whose life is coming apart at the seams. It should be a dangerous moment of both despair and defiance, yet not enough is risked, and nothing breaks.
Still, Fire in Dreamland is an emotionally generous play that’s refreshing in its deep belief in the power of one of the oldest and purest forms of theater. Susan Hilferty’s set, which fills the Anspacher theater with a minimal playing space of boardwalk-like wood and construction scaffolding, is simple enough, though I can imagine future productions of Groff’s play in which the stage is even emptier, even more of a canvas for the imagination. “Think,” Groff and her characters are telling us, “when we talk of horses — or lions, or mermaids — that you see them.” We can, and we do.