Of Stately Shrubs And Strife
It’s one of those lovely moments between sticky summer and damp Washington D.C area fall and Virginia and Frank Butley are basking in the balmy weather and admiring Frank’s hopefully soon to be award-winning garden. Over the shared fence, new homeowners Tania and Pablo Del Valle are dreaming of a barbeque-ready backyard, complete with magnificent tree.
But the East Coast Eden is about to get shaken up in a big way in Karen Zacarías’ funny and smartly written “Native Gardens” currently in its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe.
Frank Butley (Mark Pinter), a consultant who works from home, is obsessed with his rather English-looking garden, complete with lovely azaleas and lots of chemical spraying. His wife, Virginia (Peri Gilpin), a defense contractor, loves the order of it. Together, they are part of the base of their old, stately neighborhood.
It’s with some curiosity that they greet the arrival of their much younger new neighbors- the Del Valles- Pablo (Eddie Martinez), an ambitious young lawyer and Tania (Kimberli Flores), his heavily pregnant, Ph.D. candidate wife. Pablo is gunning for partner and rashly invites his firm over for a backyard party, causing Tania to put her plans for the yard (“and a new fence!”) into fast-forward.
Neighborly relations start off cordially enough, but things get a little prickly when Tania explains she means to use native plants (“You mean weeds…”), but when the Del Valles realize that a good chunk of the Butley’s yard, including the contested tree and azaleas, is really theirs, everything goes spectacularly off the rails. It’s full on Old Guard v. The New. Or is it?
Zacarías’ play turns on the age old trope of trouble with the neighbors- a common experience- except the highly produced playwright has given it a clever update, creating a thought-provoking array of metaphors in which race, gentrification, assumptions, and social expectations shift in the most unexpected of ways. And in these contested times, it’s a refreshing and much needed change to see a wide range of Latinx characters given full and centered agency in a major production.
All this is set in one of the most obvious metaphors- in the Old Globe’s theatre in the round, an inspired staging by Collette Pollard. Pollard’s design creates well-delineated yards spanned by a single tree, automatically placing the audience on one side or the other of the impending feud. The chain link fence is a brilliant touch. Resembling the fences that used to surround houses in the early 20th century, it’s a subtle reminder that this is an old neighborhood.
Director Edward Torres seems made for this play with his sure sense of timing and command of comedic register. Zacarias has traced a path of subtle twists and turns and Torres deftly takes what could easily be an out of balance, stereotypical power dynamic in lesser hands and gives it weight and an empathy that easily translates across fences and through audiences. Torres adds a fantastic, almost magical realism touch by slowing down parts of the confrontations to barely a crawl- allowing the conflict to sink in, and yet upping the entertainment ante. He has also given the pacing and structure of “Native Gardens” an intriguing TV sitcom sensibility; you can almost feel the commercial breaks. The dialog is taut, the delivery delicious and the cast plays off of each other with remarkable synergy.
Torres is blessed with a stellar cast who balance the sense of hurt, privilege, needs and compassion of their characters without missing a beat. Peri Gilpin (of “Frasier”) has an impeccable sense of comedic delivery, and when Virginia Butley lets her working class Polish-American girl out of her carefully manicured Waspy shell, Gilpin gives Virginia that hint of need that tempers her hard-edged holding the line on the garden fence. As for Mark Pinter (numerous roles on stage and television), fresh off voicing the award-winning local documentary, “The Driver is Red,” his Frank is both charming and bemused. Frank’s slightly OCD behavior hints at deeper disquiets, not all of them related to the encroaching “weeds.” When Frank finally cracks under the stain of having to relinquish parts of his beloved garden, Pinter makes Frank turn on a dime, first Shakespearean tragic figure, next comedic hysteric and back again.
Kimberli Flores is stellar in her Old Globe debut as Tania Del Valle, the Latinx PH.D. Trying to take the high road. Flores fleshes out Tania as a modern Latinx, proud of her working class deep-reaching roots (“We’ve been here for hundreds of years- WE didn’t cross the border.”) and looking forward to bringing those values with her as she moves into the professional classes. Her beautiful fierceness blazes across the stage as Tania struggles for the right spiritual balance. Eddie Martinez is solid as Pablo, the upper class Chilean-born lawyer intent on making partner, and struggling to figure out what his piece of the American dream really looks like. Martinez makes Pablo the perfect mirror for Frank, teasing out Pablo’s comparable patrician beginnings and choice of a partner of working class origins, suggesting the slow dawning realization that maybe one can also be “those people,” whoever those people happen to be at the moment.
One of the seriously fun elements (another Torres innovation) is the sharp choreography of the two “gardeners” (Jose Balistrieri and Alexander Guzman). They may be silent and calendar-worthy, but their precise movements to everything from classical to Reggaeton raises the duo from camp to sublime send up. The dismantling of the fence, treated like a religious relic, is something not to be missed.
There are a few moments when the action feels just a bit, as sitcoms frequently are- as Virginia and Frank indignantly discuss the potential of them invoking squatters rights- right on cue, Frank defiantly sits.
On the other hand, Zacarias also stumbles a bit on what is often called the “kicker” of a sitcom. With such a dramatic climax to a hilariously choreographed backyard rumble, one would expect a little more detail as we cruise towards the end. Zacarias opts for a zippy happy ending with everyone at peace, what we can assume is a year later, no longer separated by a fence. There’s even a wedding (The Butley’s now out Gay son) in the offing and native plants, like the Del Valles and the Butleys, seem ok with the old guard greenery. With all the asides and explanations directed at the audience, it just feels a little fast and a little pat.
However, don’t let the sitcom quality fool you. Zacarias’ clever flip of discussions on race and gentrification is fresh and fun. Torres and the strong cast makes it feel of the now and while clashes between neighbors is one of the oldest stories in the book, “Native Gardens” with its questions of who or what belongs, feels more relevant with each news cycle.
There’s a lot more in this garden than azaleas and “weeds.” See it before they pull the garden out.
An added bonus, the Wednesday, June 20 show features a free post-show forum with the cast and grew. Frequently fascinating, these forums are a great way to ask questions and gain insight into the production.
“Native Gardens” continues through June 24, 2018. Please see The Old Globe for information on times and ticket pricing.