nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
April 4, 2008
We are told many things by the narrator of Robert Schneider's Dirt—an Iraqi immigrant named Sad—but perhaps most significantly we are told that he is not precise with the truth. In fact, he tells us that every statement that comes out of his mouth is a lie, thrusting the audience into that classic linguistic predicament of logic: if someone says that everything they say is a lie, are they lying or telling the truth?
We are never quite sure of the answer in Dirt—now remounted after a run at last summer's New York International Fringe Festival. What we are told, at least at first, is that Sad is a 30-year-old Iraqi immigrant living in this country who is not, in fact, sad. Rather, he is living quite well selling roses and loves the culture, literature, and people in this country. He also tells us that he is a filthy foreigner who has no right to live here, supplying an assortment of anecdotal facts to support his claims, such as the thickness of his hair and lips, the darkness of his complexion, the acridity of his urine, and the brain damage caused by too much exposure to the sun. He also says that foreigners like him lie.
It is through this backwards prism of Sad's justifications and denials that we get a sense of Sad's past, his life abroad, and his views of and struggles with the new culture he is now thrust into. The portrait that emerges is of a deeply conflicted man struggling with the concept of identity—Sad wistfully remembers his days in Iraq drinking tea and playing backgammon in Basra, but also states point blank that Arab culture and even the death of an Arab child is worth less than its Western equivalent. When he turns to his new homeland and how it does and should view foreigners like him, he drifts from abject apology for his own existence to outright polemics against foreigners—now referred to as "them." Sad emerges as a man torn between two cultures—seeming to reject one while being rejected by the other—and the constant shifts in perspective interspersed with denials, repudiations, and prevarications make up what is most interesting about Schneider's script. The audience is kept alert and struggling with Sad's sense of identity in the same way Sad seems to be.
Christopher Domig handles the complicated task of portraying this character in a performance that is both skillful and subtle. We never know precisely at any given moment what Sad is thinking—whether his protestations and self-effacements are an ironic mocking of the dominant culture or a completely muddled sense of identity. The ambiguity is effective—one gets the impression that Sad is not sure himself—and Domig's performance balances on a razor's edge to keep this question in play throughout every moment. Domig and director David Robinson have sculpted Sad's changing perspectives in fluid shifts rather than abrupt reversals—often Sad slips from talking about "us" to ranting about "them" before you're aware that the shift has taken place—and Domig's ability to keep his cards close to his chest, as well as his patient command of the stage and completely believable portrayal of an Arab immigrant, result in a very effective performance.
But Dirt is as much about how the dominant culture views its immigrant population as it is about how that population views the dominant culture, and here the production generally falls short. Dirt largely fails to engage in a credible examination of xenophobia and how America treats its immigrants for one very simple reason: the play is set in and clearly written about Germany and the German experience. Robinson has altered Paul Dvorak's translation of Schneider's script and placed Sad in a contemporary American city—to my mind a regrettable choice that results in only small changes in the text but a monumental shift in perspective that pulls Dirt right off of its axle. When Sad describes the "40-year-old men" who "built the park benches" "after the war," he is referencing a country whose major urban centers were destroyed during the Second World War and the specific generation that was born afterwards. When Sad screams he is no fascist, or reminds the audience that Saddam is a name just like Adolf, or harangues the audience in polemics that mirror the hate-mongering of Nazi Germany, the provocative nature of these comments in terms of what they are directly referencing—as well as the playwright's intent—is largely thwarted. And where intended context is lost, unintended context is inserted. Putting an Iraqi immigrant in America after two invasions of Iraq by the United States may give Dirt a new sense of "relevancy", but it is one that is distracting and completely artificial, having no bearing on the story that Schneider is telling or the themes he is exploring.
Even more importantly, the context of race and immigration in Germany at the time Dirt was written is significantly different than that of America today. German citizenship is quite literally based on racial identity in a way it isn't in America: citizenship in Germany is not based on where one is born but on the ethnic identity of one's parents, and naturalization—at least in pre-EU Germany where Dirt is meant to take place—was an almost impossible task to achieve. Not surprisingly, Dirt spends most of its time analyzing Sad's "otherness" in terms of race—he laments his dark hair and features as a symbol of his inferiority as a foreigner and conversely spends much time discussing the blonde hair and light features of the "Americans" he lives among in the city, sentiments which frankly don't ring true in the multiracial and heterogeneous communities that exist in the American urban landscape. When Sad implies Arabs are more like blacks than "Americans," and bleaches his hair blonde with peroxide in a desperate effort to look "American," he evokes a country where race and national identity are inextricably linked in a homogeneous mass of white-skinned and fair-haired Caucasians, and where assimilation in any form is virtually impossible if one does not share this heritage. Obviously both race and immigration are live and heated issues in America today, and while they may overlap, they are not linked together so directly. This particular argument is a difficult one to make when transposed to this country: a stroll down a city block or a casual flipping from channel to channel on the television would seem to indicate otherwise. On the subway car on the way home from the theatre I counted exactly three people out of about 70 that fit Sad's description of "American."
On a broader and more humanistic level, Dirt engages the topics of identity and acceptance in thoughtful and often challenging ways. In light of all the skill and sensitivity that is inherent in this script and incorporated to bring this production about, the re-contextualizing of this play does it a disservice, filling the script with false notes by shifting the entire instrument out of tune. I would have rather seen a production that trusted the intelligence and imagination of the audience a little more to draw its own parallels and conclusions, rather than forcing one upon it that doesn't quite fit.