Dirt by Robert Schneider

Dirt
Based on play by Robert Schneider
Performed by Christopher Domig
Directed by Mary Catherine Burke
The 4th Street Theater, 83 East 4th Street, New York, NY 10003
September 18 – October 12, 2014
More information here

On a recent fall evening, I ventured into New York City’s Lower East Side, and trotted up the stoop of the 4th Street Theatre to catch its latest production, Dirt. The one-man show about an Iraqi flower peddler named “Sad” is an entire ocean and language away from its origins in early-‘90s Austria. It’s based in part on stories told to Austrian novelist Robert Schneider by an Iraqi roommate while he lived and worked in Vienna. Coming on the heels of his 1992 book Schlafes Bruder (Brother of Sleep), which was later adapted into the 1995 film of the same name, Dirt was published in Austrian in 1993 as Dreck, and proved a successful foray into theater for Schneider. 

The one-man show’s protagonist has a bit of the single mindedness of Brother of Sleep’s main character (an insomniac who self-destructively denies himself rest in the name of love). Sad’s nocturnal routine, though, is governed by the demands of his profession and an all-consuming fear of discovery by authorities due to the resulting deportation back to Iraq that would spell his death. 

Dirt comments on both the local xenophobia against middle-easterners of its original Austrian setting and the Gulf War that informed theatergoer impressions of Iraqis in particular. This production’s Sad is Austrian-born Christopher Domig, who picked up the play in the late-‘90s while attending high school in Salzburg and has been performing it in English for the past 11 years. The translation is courtesy of Virginia Commonwealth University professor, Paul Dvorak, who did it for a print run by West Coast publisher, Ariadne Press. Domig took home an Outstanding Actor Award for performing the US debut of that Dirt translation at 2007’s New York International Fringe Festival

For this incarnation, though, Domig has adapted a few details for the present day—including a nod to the more-recent Iraq War. The setting has also shifted to present-day New York City, complete with a properly decrepit apartment to roam about during the show’s 70-minute runtime. A stage that once contained only the seated Domig beside a bucket of roses has now expanded to a professionally built and lit set overseen by director Mary Catherine Burke. But it is Domig’s immersive performance that remains the heart of the show. His accent and mannerisms are such that one quickly forgets a white actor is affecting them, and the audience soon loses itself in Sad’s tragic plight—played out in a small room that provides him only the briefest rest before he must don his frayed coat once more and hit the evening streets to ply night owls with roses. Sad repeatedly expresses his love for the country those streets pave ... and also his knowledge that it does not return the sentiment. 

Perhaps the most visceral moment comes when Sad recounts that only when trains scream by in the subway can he lose all fear and shame and shout his full name—the words becoming as invisible to the world around as a poor Iraqi flower peddler offering passers-by a simple rose in an electric city.

Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.