“Fire in Dreamland,” Rinne Groff’s shaky parable of art and love and licorice at the Public Theater, is set just after Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 catastrophe that devastated New York’s coastline, flooding Coney Island. But Ms. Groff has another calamity in mind: the conflagration that tore through Coney Island in 1911, destroying the Dreamland amusement park’s wood-and-plaster fantasia. No people died, but many exotic animals did.
That really happened: the baby elephant that suffocated because his trainer wasn’t there; the black-maned lion that was shot as he fled up a railroad track, while the fire hoses sprayed hopelessly. (Some consolation, six Shetland ponies were blindfolded and led to safety.) You may find all this somewhat easier to believe than Ms. Groff’s affectionate, but never especially persuasive play, directed by Marissa Wolf.
Six months after Sandy, Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones), a low-level bureaucrat working in economic redevelopment, is hunched over on the boardwalk weeping. She’s interrupted by Jaap (Enver Gjokaj), a Dutch film student who has just dropped his cellphone in the murky surf. Jaap is a little intrusive, but a lot handsome, so she listens to his pitch: He’s here to make a movie about the animals lost in the Dreamland fire. As they circle each other in a damp mating dance, the actor Kyle Beltran sits upstage, marking each scene change with a clack on a clapperboard. Eventually, he enters as Lance, Jaap’s film school colleague.
With fragmentary scenes and jump cuts, “Fire in Dreamland” is a play about moviemaking, about the ways in which history and memory are redeployed as art. It is also, at least in theory, about the conflict between dreams and responsibility and the damage, much of it collateral, that dreams can inflict.
Dreams — or to put it less romantically, obsessions — have fascinated Ms. Groff for a while. She investigated them in early plays like “Inky” (a nanny in thrall to Muhammad Ali) and “The Five Hysterical Girls Theorem” (a mathematician infatuated with prime numbers), and again in later ones like “The Ruby Sunrise” (one woman fixated on inventing television and another determined to have that story told) and “Compulsion” (a man gripped by Anne Frank and her diaries). What happens to pursued dreams is pretty much her remit.
In “Fire in Dreamland,” the dreamer is Jaap. It could just as easily be Kate, so captivated by his ambition that she upends her own life to help him make his movie. But Kate wants to focus on practical things, like Final Draft (for screenwriting) and Kickstarter (for funding), while Jaap just wants to talk about the “breadth of my vision.”
Here, the play borrows from the current template of the rom-com, in which love allows a childish man to grow up and an uptight woman to loosen up. But there’s something uglier and yet not ugly enough operating here. The audience needs to be seduced just as Kate is seduced, and that’s unlikely — partly because Jaap’s film project seems so dubious, but mostly because Jaap is so blatantly bad news. Kate is drawn to him in the way I’ve watched moths drawn to lighting rigs. The sizzle is all the wrong kind.
In the first scene, Jaap imposes on Kate while she’s weeping. In the next, he walks out on her when she questions the movie’s story arc. (He’s Dutch, so “I want some licorice” replaces the old pack-of-cigarettes excuse.) In the third, he’s borrowing her credit card — ambivalently lent — to buy Bitcoin. There are so many red flags, the play verges on semaphore.
Jaap manipulates Kate, gaslights her, belittles her. “You are a petty bureaucrat,” he tells her. That Kate momentarily mistakes him for a relief worker is probably the funniest and saddest thing in the play. Because Jaap isn’t the relief; he’s the disaster. Would this matter less if his proposed film sounded better or more plausible? I don’t want to make the argument that great art somehow excuses pathological narcissism, and I don’t think Ms. Groff or Ms. Wolf do either. Debates about art and pragmatism falter in the face of what is clearly an abusive relationship. But because the play cares for all its characters, it sidesteps acknowledging just how abusive the relationship is.
Ms. Jones is an actress of luminous intensity. She isn’t ideally cast as a bureaucrat — petty or otherwise — but she’s still a treat to watch, even when (or especially when?) she has to shimmy into full Mermaid Parade regalia. Mr. Gjokaj, a familiar presence from TV (“Agent Carter,” “Dollhouse”), wears his masculinity lightly, which mitigates some of Jaap’s awfulness. His boyish enthusiasm makes you wonder if Jaap is just another victim of his own flimflam. (But you can also wonder: So what?) To say more about Mr. Beltran’s Lance risks spoilers. But the character is nevertheless underwritten, which Mr. Beltran’s twitchy sympathy nicely disguises. Ms. Wolf directs him and the others with obvious compassion, though more hard-nosed clarity might help.
The play takes a more compelling turn just at the end, exploring what we do after a calamity and how we might, with care and pain, rebuild our boardwalks and our hearts. That’s a recovery project I’d like to see.