It’s September and a young/mostly old theater lovers fancy turns to…going to lots and lots of theater openings as the fall season kicks off with dozens of new productions.
Intiman Theatre kicked off the fall season with their season closer, the very topical NATIVE GARDENS, Karen Zacarías’s culture clash comedy about two very different married couples living side by side in an upscale Washington D.C. neighborhood. Virginia and Frank Butley are the long established pair, a white, middle aged, conservative upper middle class couple with a cherished and very manicured backyard garden tended to by Frank who has long yearned to win a local gardening award.
Enter Pablo and Tania Del Valle, a young upwardly mobile Latinx couple who move into the rundown town home adjacent to Virginia and Frank. Pablo is a Chilean immigrant and ambitious young lawyer hoping to make partner in his law firm while Tania is in grad school, in her 8th month of pregnancy and an advocate of “native” gardening…only using plants indigenous to the area which is healthier for the environment.
Virginia and Frank warmly welcome the younger couple as neighbors (with wine and “good” chocolate) and seem delighted to have new young people next door who will fix up the decrepit house. Frank is a bit alarmed by Tania’s militant stand on native garden; his own garden is awash with a wide variety of brightly colored vegetation, little of which is native to the area, but the two couples seem well on their way to being friendly neighbors.
But, when Pablo discovers that survey maps show that a strip of their newly purchased property has been “claimed” over the years by an unintentional shifting of property markers resulting in the Butley’s favor, that friendly relationship quickly breaks down as the two couples wage a comedic war of sabotage on one another’s yards. Angry and harsh words are exchanged that reveal tensions based on….well, just about everything: ethnicity, privilege, class, gender, politics and age all come into play as the two couples bicker over the border(s) that divides them.
Yes, Ms Zacarías has written a VERY timely play…it could have been ripped from the wall of any one of hundred thousand Facebook walls filled with passionate threads about outrage, offense, privilege and social justice.
FORTUNATELY and unlike most social media wars, Ms Zacarías has written a play that manages to be a nuanced and fair portrayal of various sides of a discussion fraught with tension. Both couples and all four of the characters are guilty of bad behavior and poor choices…it’s not a case of making the old white couple the “villains” and the young couple of color the “heroes”. Frank and Virginia are certainly guilty of abusing their perceived privilege and making assumptions and declarations that might not be intentionally meant as racist or biased, but are still ignorant and hurtful. Pablo and Tania are both guilty of impetuousness and the privilege of impatient youth in many of their actions.
And, the play is clever in giving each character their own individual identities and pairing up different variants between all four couples. Age and politics might divide Virginia and Tania but the two do bond over the fact both women come from working class backgrounds who both married men who come from more privileged ones. Virginia points out to Pablo that they both have had to break through glass ceiling with their careers; her as an engineer in the world of defense contractors and he as a Chilean immigrant in a prominent D.C. law firm. Frank and Tania both love gardening though their views on the practice of it may differ, they still share that passion. These characterizations give the play a sense of reality and makes the characters feel plausible and more engaging. And, the dialogue is sharp and witty; Ms Zacarías has crafted a play that engages while it charms. And, director Arlene Martínez-Vázquez excellently guides the cast with her assured staging.
But, there are a few issues that need addressing. The play is a bit contrived at times in a familiar TV sitcom sort of way. Do you think Tania’s late stage pregnancy might eventually play a role in the plot? (It does.) Some of the farcical revenge bits are a tad over the top. And, the central plot point of Pablo insisting that the matter over the property line being settled so quickly because he wants to host a backyard event for his law firm in just a few days time is…not realistic, for a variety of reasons. (Need a list?The yard is a disaster and there’s no way it’s going to look good enough in a week; fence construction ALWAYS takes a lot longer than you plan; no sane, self assured heavily pregnant woman is going to go along with this idiotic plan…)
Two other nitpicks. The play does drag at times with some longer than necessary moments between scenes, bits of business probably inserted to give actors time to change costumes. Some of those interstitial moments feel a bit forced. And, on a super nitpicky detail, the lush overly colorful garden of the Butley’s makes absolutely no logical sense. We learn the play is set in September yet the garden is full of tulips and lupins and lilies and all sorts of things that wouldn’t bloom concurrently with one another, as well as flowers that are NOT blooming in September (which would be mostly asters and mums). The set itself, designed by Lex Marcos, is quite handsome but the set dressing is going to have to take a demerit from anyone who is an actual garden lover.
But, no apologies for the strong cast. Sophie Franco is appealing feisty as the passionate native gardener Tania and Philip Ray Guevara charms as the husband Pablo, who is bit underwritten compared to the other three characters, but Mr. Guevara still gives Pablo warmth and dimension despite that.
Seattle theater veterans Jim Gall and Julie Briskman are their usual delightful selves here as the older couple. Mr. Gall shades the essentially kind hearted Frank with lots of genial touches while Ms Briskman infuses the more opinionated Virginia with all sorts of delicious layers…passionate at times but also dryly pragmatic when necessary.
It’s at times more TV sitcom-y than it needs to be, but the snappy dialogue and smart characterizations of the script along with the overall strong production and the talents of the four main actors make Native Gardens worth a visit.
Review: NATIVE GARDENS by Karen Zacarías. Produced by Intiman Theatre. Directed by Arlene Martínez-Vázquez . Set Design by Lex Marcos. Costume Design by Frances Kenny. Lighting Design by Robert J. Aguilar. Sound Design by Matt Starritt. With Julie Briskman, Sophie Franco, Jim Gall, Phillip Ray Guevara, Gloria Alcalá, Yolanda Suarez. Now through September 30, 2018 at Jones Playhouse/University of Washington.