Can a young liberal couple of Hispanic descent move in next door to well-to-do “older” white Republicans and find, if not happiness, a friendly detente? Do good fences really make good neighbors? According to playwright Karen Zacarias, the familiar “primal and absurd” root of conflict that spreads like kudzo in local neighborhoods is not much different when it appears across international boundaries.
This crackling comedy, set in Washington, D.C., ignited the audience with laughter at references to local neighborhoods understood to be upscale or just artsy but hip; neighborhoods where “those people” live. Directed by Blake Robison, “Native Gardens” begins with the differences and takes ninety minutes of steadily ramping antes to find a meeting place. The humor, which is startling at times, springs from the fact that these are not good guys vs. bad guys – all are recognizably decent people coming from some very different comfort zones.
A very pregnant Tania Del Valle (Jackqueline Correa) and her lawyer husband Pablo (Dan Dominues) have just bought an old house next door to the Butleys. Virginia (Sally Wingert) is an engineer, a deliberate can-do sort who has feathered a very comfortable career nest in the male-dominated defense field. Frank Butley (Steve Hendrickson), a bureaucrat at heart, satisfies a macho-driven competitive streak with his garden. Manicured, loved, symmetrical, Frank’s garden is not just a collection of carefully tended botanicals, it is his measure of himself. Every year he girds his loins for the battle to win the neighborhood’s Best Garden Award.
Enter the Del Valle’s with their big, scraggly oak tree, dirt yard and languishing remnants of shrubbery. They have plans, of course, to tidy things up, and Tania earnestly lectures anyone who will listen on the benefits of “native gardens” – those happy plots of earth that grow only what the environment intended to grow. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that before they can install a fence for the upcoming party that Pablo so ill-advisedly planned for his firm, they have to get a survey. And the survey shows that their property line extends into the Butley’s yard.
It’s a situation made for comedy heaven, and the jabs ebb and flow from strained insinuations to the insult direct to a garden hose used like an AK-47. But it’s not just slapstick with a happy ending. The ghosts of racial perceptions and class barriers permeate not just the scenes of all-out warfare, but the restrained dance of privilege and assumptions about privilege when the two families first meet.
The set design by Joseph Tilford joins the supplemental ensemble as a silent but essential character, for it sets out, in loving detail, the differences between the Del Valles and the Butleys before we even meet them. Two respectable old brick houses, one raw, one painted; two back door lights, one in a tasteful cover, the other a naked bulb; and two yards separated by a falling down wire fence on one side, and a border of lovingly groomed flowers on the other.
As sharp as the comedy is, as well written and well played, the troublemaker in me wants to point out that the set-up, unlike actual life, carries the seeds of its own resolution within it. All four of these people are well educated and well spoken. Pablo comes from an aristocratic family in Chile. Tania is a Ph.D candidate. It’s easy to agree on how silly racial and class assumptions are when they aren’t all that different to begin with.
Ms. Zacarias gets kudos for a successful play, but if she ever really wants to explore this topic, she’s welcome to visit MY neighborhood.
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
WANT TO GO?
What: “Native Gardens”
Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW, Washington, D.C.
Call: (202) 554-9066 or visit www.arenastage.org
Playing through Oct. 22