Review by Kathleen Campion

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

Rebecca Naomi Jones owns Fire In Dreamland, at The Public Theater.  She plays Kate, and in the way of well-trained actors, she makes you believe she is Kate, arrived tonight, just to tell you a story.

Rinne Groff writes her like she’s peeling off pages backstage; they seem that spontaneous. Groff, true to form, is telling a complicated tale, spinning out competing narratives, occasionally forcing the audience to pause and take stock.

Kate wants to tell us the story of the great Coney Island fire of 1911 — about the noble black lion … about the mermaid who saved the Shetland ponies … about the innocent baby elephant who loyally waited in vain for redemption.  Kate is taken with the story but it is not her story.  It was whispered in her ear by the man who wants to make it his film.  She wants to whisper it in our ear.

The man, a charismatic Dutch filmmaker, Jaap Hooft ( Enver Gjokaj), is struggling to make the film with his singular vision and without artistic compromise.  He is, however, prepared to compromise on other levels. He’s gorgeous, and as his young admirer, Lance (Kyle Beltran), notes: “Very compelling.”  To Lance and to the women Jaap meets, he is both lamb and lion.

Enver Gjokaj plays Jaap with a beguiling charm of the outsider, eager to engage.   It is not until you see Kate’s wallet in his hand —  while she searches for it — that you wonder: “Is he what he seems?”  — and that is well into the play. 

Kate’s real-life engagement with the destruction that hurricane Sandy visited on the current Coney Island residents all around her, draws her to her story line — the contemporary story of their resilience and redemption versus Jaap’s story of noble, if pointless, death.  The other “ball you must keep juggling,” of course, is the romance between them, a constant metaphor. Kate wants something real.  Jaap wants something else.  A brilliant division. He keeps insisting they don’t yet know how the “film” will end.

Jones’ Kate holds the stage for the whole 90 minutes, with lively monologues interspersed with scenes, she plays off  the two men: Gjokaj’s Jaap and Lance, the latter played with a brilliantly contorted eccentricity by Kyle Beltran.  His scratchy presence is worth the price of a ticket.  Still, Jones is the gravitational force.  

Director Marissa Wolf makes the most of a talented cast. She pushes them to execute even the silences with power. She uses a small audio device to pace the action — a clapperboard —  a filmmaker’s artifact to mark scenes in a powerful stage play about filmmaking.    You think it will get old but instead, you long for it.

The setting in Coney Island has an artful dodge about it. There’s a fare amount of gimcrackery and a rich supply of laugh-out-loud moments, to be sure. It takes a long time, in the frame of 90 minutes, for things to turn dark.  Until they do, the audience has a lot of fun.

There are the cosmic themes of creation-vs-destruction and redemption-vs-damnation.  But, perhaps because this play is debuting right now, the playwright seeds the script with something an American audience is much in need of — a reminder that Americans, unlike Europeans, are, at core, a hopeful people.

It is in the DNA of the Public to produce theater that is destined for more.  It is easy to see that this production — this small cast, with this remarkable script, and deft direction already in hand —could move uptown.   With that in mind you might want to stroll over to Lafayette Street now.

Fire in Dreamland – By Rinne Groff; directed by Marissa Wolf.

WITH: Rebecca Naomi Jones (Kate), Enver Gjokaj (Jaap Hooft), Kyle Beltran (Lance).

Designed by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Amith Chandrashaker; original music and sound design by Brendan Aanes; production stage manager is Buzz Cohen. Produced by the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan.  Through August 5.  Running time: 100 minutes without intermission.