Anspacher Theater, the Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. at Astor Pl.
Tuesday through Sunday through August 5, $50
Rinne Groff’s Fire in Dreamland is set in Coney Island, but unlike the famous Cyclone, this roller coaster of a play doesn’t have quite enough chills and thrills, twists and turns to ultimately satisfy. The play, having its New York premiere at the Public’s Anspacher Theater through August 5, is set primarily in 2013, shortly after Superstorm Sandy. Trying to find her way in life, Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is walking along the Coney Island boardwalk when she encounters Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj), a licorice-loving Dutch hunk who is making a documentary about the 1911 fire that destroyed the Dreamland amusement park and killed many trained animals. At first Kate wants nothing to do with the stranger, but soon they have hooked up and are working together on the project. Through it all, a man hiding in the shadows at the back of Susan Hilferty’s wood-centric set keeps snapping a clapperboard as each scene ends or slightly shifts in time like cinematic jump cuts. He turns out to be Lance (Kyle Beltran), Japp’s squirmy right-hand man who is jealous of Kate, both personally and professionally.
Groff (The Ruby Sunrise, Saved) and director Marissa Wolf, in her New York debut, try to equate natural disasters with private upheavals and romance, but the characters never quite connect with one another or the story. Jones (Significant Other, Big Love) is very good as Kate, but a key plot twist is too mundane and conventional for a woman seeking some kind of self-empowerment. Gjokaj (As You Like It, Future Thinking) is too one-note as Japp, who may or may not be more of a con man; we don’t learn much about his filmmaking skills, as we never get to see any of the footage that Kate kvells over. And Beltran (The Amateurs, The Flick) is too whiny as Lance, who really just needs a big hug. The various ideas explored in the play, from love and loss to artistic creation and personal growth in the face of catastrophe, never quite come together in the choppy narrative, failing to grab on to a central conflict and purpose, weaving around the amusement park tragedy but not linking it to the rest of the story. There are nice moments and pleasant touches, and Jones is lovely to watch, but Fire in Dreamland peters out too soon.