[Full article published in TDF Stages, July 17, 2018.]
How Superstorm Sandy changed the trajectory of Fire in Dreamland
Playwright Rinne Groff is obsessed with the obsessed, whether it’s an inventor’s struggle to perfect an early version of television (The Ruby Sunrise), an author’s fixation on the story of Anne Frank (Compulsion) or an aspiring filmmaker’s quest to make a movie about a historic catastrophe in Coney Island in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. That last one is the subject of Groff’s latest play, Fire in Dreamland, currently running at the Public Theater. It’s a time-traveling meditation on the cycle of destruction and rebirth seen through the eyes of local do-gooder Kate (Obie winner Rebecca Naomi Jones), who tries to help a Dutchman named Jaap (Enver Gjokaj) complete his passion project about an iconic amusement park that went up in flames.
Groff initially learned of the 1911 Dreamland fire in Rem Koolhaas’s 40-year-old tome Delirious New York, an iconic work of historical fiction about the Big Apple. The chapter “Coney Island: The Technology of the Fantastic” includes a section on the Dreamland disaster, which decimated the attraction and killed many of the animals in its boardwalk menagerie. News coverage at the time spotlighted the demise of a lion known as Black Prince, who escaped his enclosure mane aflame, climbed one of the rides, was shot by police and ultimately felled by a fireman’s ax. Koolhaas’ ruminations on the tragedy sparked Groff’s initial drafts of the play.
Then, in the middle of the work’s development, Superstorm Sandy hit Coney Island hard. “At first I had this totally solipsistic and ridiculous reaction that the storm had ruined my play,” recalls Groff, who considered setting the script aside. “Then I thought, Jaap wouldn’t have that reaction. Jaap only understands everything in terms of how it affects his ability to get something done.”