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BWW Review: Rebecca Naomi Jones is Terrifically Engaging in Rinne Groff's Coney Island Excursion, FIRE IN DREAMLAND


It's a classically-styled cinematic pose. The kind that tends to define a certain era of film noir. A woman stands alone on the Coney Island boardwalk on a chilly day. Covered in a tan trench coat, belt tied at the waist, she stares out at the ocean. After a few moments, emotions sweep over her and she begins to cry.

Fire in Dreamland
Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Suddenly, we hear the clack of a slate board; the kind used on film sets, and she's immediately enthused and energetic, describing a movie about the devastating 1911 Coney Island fire that destroyed the iconic Dreamland amusement park.

Another clack. She's once again crying at the boardwalk. A stranger tentatively inquires if she's alright. There are more clacks during their initial conversation. Sometimes it appears that there's been a break in time. Sometimes not.

What is happening? While watching director Marissa Wolf's Public Theater mounting of the always-intriguing playwright Rinne Groff's Fire in Dreamland, this reviewer kinda/sorta concluded that the clacks represented retakes in the storytelling, with the audience witnessing some scenes that will make the final cut and others that will be edited out. Wrong guess.

As pointed out in the script, each clack represents a passage of time; sometimes forward, sometimes backward, several months, several years or maybe a minute or two. The lack of clarity can be a bit confusing.

The story itself is a somewhat conventional tale of a smart, responsible woman who, during a period of vulnerability, gets caught up in the dreams of an intense artist with a sexy foreign accent and an adorably incorrect way with the English language.

Credit the terrifically engaging and credible performance of Rebecca Naomi Jones for making it work as well as it does. She plays Kate, a woman lost for a purpose in life, despite two masters, a teaching certificate and a deathbed promise to her father to be a social worker.

The year is 2013 and Dutch filmmaker Jaap (Enver Gjokaj, with a kind of square-jawed sincerity), has come to Coney Island after seeing videos of the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy. He's inspired to make a film about the 1911 fire, using the services of a company in India that enhances his contemporary shots with CGI technology to make them look period.

Kate gets caught up in the excitement of the project, especially Jaap's angle of focusing on the animals that were trapped in the blaze, including a black lion who, as the legend goes, escaped from his trainer and climbed to the top of a roller coaster for safety as gunmen try to kill him.

Fire in Dreamland
Kyle Beltran and Rebecca Naomi Jones
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

Kate not only begins sleeping with Jaap, but she becomes an investor, producer and actor (wearing a mermaid outfit) in the venture as the passionate artist surges on with his creation without a mind for practicality. We know this isn't going to end well, right? Particularly when Jaap's socially awkward film student friend Lance (Kyle Beltran) enters the picture.

Groff is a playwright who has excelled in finding interesting angles in stories about artists interpreting historic events. In her extraordinary THE RUBY SUNRISE a TV network is reluctant to tell the full truth in a dramatic special about a teenage girl who may have invented television in her Indiana barn. COMPULSION examines a conflict over who would provide the story of Anne Frank in a manner suitable for the public consumption.

FIRE IN DREAMLAND, despite solid moments of compassion and humor, rarely strays far from the cliché of a lost soul being seduced by artistic charisma.

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From This Author Michael Dale