A woman is standing on a boardwalk, weeping – not the tears of a damsel in distress, but the tears of a person who is broken down and tired. She’s mourning a personal loss, but her tears speak to the losses of her community as well – one that she lived through, and one that she has yet to discover. A man approaches her, and after a few minutes of icebreakers, she lets him wipe the smeared mascara from her face.
But before we meet the weeping woman Kate as a character, we meet her as a narrator. This is one of the most endearing parts of Rinne Groff’s Fire in Dreamland: the playful way in which the dialogue darts through the fourth wall and between moments in time.
Fire in Dreamland follows a brief but passionate relationship between Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a burned-out young woman living on Coney Island, and Jaap (Enver Gjokaj), a winsome Eastern European filmmaker. He has arrived on the shores of Brooklyn to carry out his vision of a film that captures the beauty and tragedy of the real-life 1911 fire that burned down the Dreamland amusement park on Coney Island.
A romance between Kate and Jaap flames up as quickly as the historical fire which brings them together. Kate becomes enamored with Jaap and his vision, and finds herself investing more and more of herself into the story, the project, and the man himself without realizing how much she’s giving up.
Still, though she may be giving herself to Jaap, she’s also discovering herself in the process. Kate is a deliciously complex woman. Groff writes her as a character whose entire story can’t be explained in a single play, in a single relationship, and the fantastic Rebecca Naomi Jones brings her to life with an affectionate cynicism. We discover that Kate has an unexpected brilliance ignited by her connection to the story of the 1911 fire, which she describes to us with such passion and emotional investment that it’s as if she’s envisioning herself there and imagining the way she wants an audience to be there too.
Kate has something that Jaap does not – a relationship with Coney Island, and more importantly, a first-hand connection to the pain of its people. The play is set in 2013, the year after Superstorm Sandy devastated much of Brooklyn. As Kate vividly tells it, she knows people who still live in buildings that were flooded with trash and debris and have remained that way since the storm, hot and stinking and forgotten by the city – or the “petty bureaucrats,” as Jaap pronounces in his clumsy, charming English. Inspired by the resilience of Coney Island, past and present, Kate finds strength in the roar of a doomed lion, or the resolve of a costumed mermaid who braved the flames to save lives without ever having her name remembered.
Groff’s script is exceedingly clever, and her characters are vivid, animated easily by the charm and talent of Rebecca Naomi Jones and Enver Gjokaj. But the overall aftertaste of the show is a bit lackluster, perhaps because the bones of the story feel played out. Beyond the fascinating crux that is the Dreamland fire, the “girl meets boy” and “whirlwind romance” tropes fail to captivate. Even Kate and Jaap’s personalities can be boiled down to archetypes: the unreliable visionary, the overworked New Yorker searching for meaning. But that isn’t to say that the show isn’t wholly enjoyable. The fun, clever dialogue and the charisma of the actors certainly make this is show worth seeing at the Public Theater.