There’s plenty of anger but insufficient structure at play in Austrian playwright Robert Schneider’s Dirt, currently playing at the 4th Street Theatre in a production directed by Mary Catherine Burke. Examining the daily life of an Iraqi immigrant in a big American city, the play is a complicated and emotionally intense exploration of what it feels like to be an outsider in a city that would rather not acknowledge his presence.
Originally written in German (and translated here by Paul Dvorak), Dirt has become one of the most-performed solo shows in central Europe and made its English-language premiere in 2007 with this production, which originally played the New York International Fringe Festival before touring Europe.
Austrian-American actor Christopher Domig plays Sad (or is his name actually Sad?), our unreliable protagonist, who has come to the U.S. with a familiar sense of optimism, now deflated. Without the ability to work legally, Sad peddles roses on the street for a living. Domig’s performance is vital and heartfelt, the disappointment in his face speaking volumes about Sad’s new, disappointing city life. In the 4th Street Theatre’s tiny space, it’s impossible not to be caught up in his intense glare, particularly as he gives passionate voice to Sad’s most salient points about the difficulty of the immigrant experience.
But despite Domig’s committed performance, the play, full of compelling ideas, lacks structure and forward momentum. Sad expresses his ideas and opinions with abandon but tells the audience very little about his own life. What he does reveal — about his mother and his son Steven, to whom he gave an “American name” — is limited, and a late-in-the-game switcheroo by playwright Schneider leaves us frustratedly questioning all of our assumptions about Sad thus far.
At a mere 70 minutes, Dirt still feels overly long. Schneider makes ample use of recurring motifs and phrases (“Kodak,” “park bench people,” “black eyes”) throughout his play, but rather than accumulating into a satisfying whole the play’s repetitious diction grows tedious. Not much happens to Sad, and Sad doesn’t do much over the course of the evening. So, though Sad talks a lot and gets angry at moments, it’s hard to view him as a fully developed character and to be truly absorbed by his journey within the context of this flawed piece.