In the late 1800’s Brooklyn built a series of amusement park businesses around one of its beaches and this became Coney Island. Today the park still exists, but a catastrophic fire in 1911 is the subject of Fire in Dreamland going on from June 19th to August 5th at the Public Theater in the New York University neighborhood. The play was written by Rinne Groff and directed by Marissa Wolf. This production stars Enver Gjokaj as filmmaker Jaap Hooft, Kyle Beltran as his production assistant Lance, and Rebecca Naomi Jones as Kate.
Jaap Hooft is charming and visionary, with an Eastern European accent that makes him seem exotic. He woos Kate, and by extension the audience, by telling her about his dream of making a film about Coney Island’s 1911 fire. In his telling, the history becomes immersive and alive. At first a skeptic, Kate becomes enraptured by Hooft’s dream and slowly gives Jaap Hooft money and quits her job for the sake of his dream. This gives the proceedings a menacing and potentially dangerous foreshadowing, as the audience wonders not if, but how much Hooft will affect Kate.
Furthermore, the play is both surprising and determined, such that Jaap Hooft’s has successes – when finishing a short draft, or securing 27,000 Euros from his consulate embassy in New York. And these successes meet failures of procrastination in his failure to commit to completing his film. In this way, “Fire in Dreamland,” has something to say about millennial adults in their romantic relationships, that women may be more realistic in opposition to men and their fickle passions. All of this is almost the substance of oxygen and water, that out of some 70 million millennials, in a commoditized American society, between Tindr and OKCupid there’s going to be more than a few breakups.
That’s why it’s important this play executes its last scenes. Jaap Hooft finally buckles, and succumbs to escapism, he leaves Kate for Romania and his play unfinished, and yet Kate decides to complete the movie about Coney Island with Lance. Getting out of a relationship means losing a friend, but a curious thing about the expansion of self in a loving relationship is what remains after that love. This play is therefore astute and wise about what happens after a breakup. This play is therefore similar to Kierkegaard’s first essay in his Works of Love, where the philosopher talked about a verse from the Bible, “You shall know love by its fruits.” Like Kate, Kierkegaard rightly saw love can be part of reality, that love is more than just a perspective one takes on like clothing, and so, when a relationship ends, there can still be fruits.
This play has plenty of perspectives, thanks to a specific dramatic effect. Kate deals with love and loss, but one repeating and fascinating trick was the use of a clapping sound from a filmmaker’s marker often outside of a scene. When the marker spanked, Kate changes perspective, or the actors change their arrangement often in the middle of a scene. This disorients the audience, and speaks to disorientation in Kate as a narrator of the play. This effect makes the play interesting as it offers spice on the proceedings. Playwright Groff, a professor of drama at NYU’s Tisch School, may have picked up on this trick from improv comedy, which has a game where performers use clapping as a way to spin new ideas and jokes on a scene that stays the same.
In psychoanalysis and critical theory this “clapping” has greater connotations. Psychoanalyst and professor Jamieson Webster, who writes for The Guardian, detailed this device and how it works in psychoanalysis at the Brooklyn Central Library’s “Night of Philosophy and Ideas,” in a speech in January 2018. Webster explained Jacques Lacan’s concept of “The Cut,” as a way of interrupting a narrative or a part of a person’s subconscious. In Lacan’s system, the subconscious is more like two houses a person cannot visit at the same time, and “The Cut,” as clapping or an alarm clock is mean to bring the psychoanalyst’s patient out of one consciousness and into another. Lacan’s system was meant to update a Freudian system, that the subconscious is less like two houses, and more like a geological survey of layers.
The play’s symbolic revelation is therefore pretty deep – or, following Lacan, pretty far out: that Kate is-remembering and is-creating the story of her love after the fact, that after her relationship with Jaap Hooft, she finds herself editing, re-contextualizing, and taking different lessons from her relationship into the future. Groff’s use of time here is radical because dramatic arts ordinarily use their immediacy as simulation of the present, in an eternity, so that the play can be repeated. Groff might want her audience to deal with their emotional traumas with similar resilience.
“Fire in Dreamland,” is an amazing play with insights into how dreams become reality, and the show has a wizened and mature sentiment about what happens after those dreams materialize. By not succumbing to a sophomoric sadness about the tragedy of losing a romantic partner, this play shows an alternative in gratitude. “Fire in Dreamland” is a beautiful and intelligent work, and you should go see it!