Large chunks of Fire in Dreamland could be subtitled Portrait of the Auteur as a Prick. If you had any patience left for the archetype of the driven, narcissistic male artist, it may well be completely eradicated by the end of this show. The lead character in Rinne Groff’s new play (at the Public Theater) actually isn’t that guy, but rather Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones, of Significant Other and Passing Strange), an overeducated New Yorker stuck in a boring job at a nebulous Coney Island public-private partnership. One day on the boardwalk — Susan Hilferty’s handsomely austere set evokes its wooden gray slates — Kate meets cute with Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj), an aspiring filmmaker who has come from his native Netherlands to make a film about the inferno that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park in 1911.
Kate is seduced by Jaap’s humorless monomania; intrigued by his decision to focus his film on the tragic deaths of the Dreamland animals; and touched by the generations-bridging connections forged by the recently wrecked Coney (the action takes place in 2013, shortly after Hurricane Sandy). Alarm bells should go off, but they don’t, even when she asks him to clarify his film’s ending and he replies, “I did not understand when I agreed to share with you the breadth of my vision that this would now become a notes session.” Or, worse, when Jaap uses Kate’s credit card to purchase bitcoin so he can pay the “quite good Indians” he’s hired to do CGI touch-ups. His quest has become hers: Her life now has meaning, and she will see the movie through.
A founding member of Elevator Repair Service — she’s appeared in many of their shows, going back to the first, Mr. Antipyrene, Fire Extinguisher (1991) — Groff maintains dual careers as a performer and a writer. In that latter capacity, she’s long shown an interest in how people process (often true) events in their own art. Her play Compulsion (2010) was inspired by the writer Meyer Levin’s obsession with Anne Frank’s diary and his quest to turn it into a play. 2004’s The Ruby Sunrise, set during the early days of television, also deals with the complexities of dramatization.
Under Marissa Wolf’s direction, Jones nicely handles many switches in time and point of view, as Kate goes from recounting what happened between her and Jaap to describing scenes from the largely unmade movie. In one strand, she pictures how the 1911 fire started, how the lead wrangler tried to save his charges, and what happened to Black Prince, the park’s iconic lion. Animal lovers will be glad to hear that the scene’s emotional power is considerably dulled by Brendan Aanes’s cheesily melodramatic underscore, because otherwise the story would be unbearably horrific to listen to (Groff is faithful to the facts).
At regular intervals, we hear the sound of a movie clap board, operated in the background by a young man who will turn out to be Lance (Kyle Beltran, of The Fortress of Solitude), another local who’s fallen for Jaap’s tortured-artist schtick. Lance is a fuzzily drawn character, but the lanky Beltran gives him a hesitant charm, and his scenes with Kate — including a funny one in which the pair discuss Schindler’s List — are quite compelling, if too few and too late.
In Fire in Dreamland, two people are obsessed but the conjunction of history and art only changes one: Kate. And yet, she never quite acquires a fully rounded personality, instead remaining a sketch of a character in search of purpose — or, in dramaturgical terms, motivation. As for that potentially intriguing Sandy connection, it is so underwritten as to feel arbitrary. For a story about the extremes of being consumed, in every sense of the word, Fire in Dreamland is oddly lukewarm.