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War of the gardens

By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review 

‘Native Gardens’ crosses more than neighbor’s boundaries

There’s something to offend everyone in Karen Zacarías’ “Native Gardens,” a sitcom masquerading as a socially conscious comedy at The Old Globe’s in-the-round White Theatre.

Property lines and other boundaries (race, class, age and privilege among them) are the topics under consideration in this show, directed by Edward Torres and playing through June 24.

Things run amuck when new neighbors battle over back yard garden beauty (Photo by Jim Cox)

Frank (Mark Pinter) and Virginia Butley (Peri Gilpin), 60-plus longtime residents of a WASPy neighborhood near Washington, D.C., welcome 30ish new neighbors Pablo Del Valle (Eddie Martinez) and his very pregnant wife Tania (Kimberli Flores) with red wine and dark chocolate, served in the Butleys’ beautifully manicured garden.

Frank is a federal employee who now consults from home, Virginia an engineer at Lockheed Martin. Frank is responsible for the beauty of the Butleys’ garden, which he tends with meticulous care, at one point balletically spraying insecticide to the strains of a lovely waltz.

Pablo is an attorney who wants to make partner. His first mistake is to invite his boss to visit. The boss immediately takes this as an invitation to the whole firm (60 people) and suggests this Saturday. (This strains credulity a bit, but let it pass.)

 New neighbors draw the line in the battle of the gardens (Photo by Jim Cox)

The Del Valles’ garden, an unkempt mess, abuts Frank’s lovely space, separated from it by an ugly chain-link fence now overgrown with ivy (thanks to Frank). There are also a few sad-looking hydrangea plants around the yard.

But this garden (or, more properly, space) was the selling point for Tania, who fell in love with the huge oak tree in the middle and has visions of an eco-friendly garden with native plants. She is unfazed by Virginia’s snarky question, “Isn’t it their purpose to be ugly?”

It’s this kind of thoughtless comment that pervades the play, as each character reveals un-P.C. thoughts about Mexicans, plants, millennials, Democrats, you name it. These characters (especially Frank and Virginia) are equal-opportunity insulters.

The crisis occurs when, in the course of getting rid of the chain-link fence and putting up a nice wooden one, Pablo looks at the paperwork on the property and realizes that their property actually extends two feet into the Butley garden.

Uh-oh. How will this be resolved? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Along the way, you’ll see two gardeners (Jose Balistrieri and Alex Guzman) who prancingly haul lumber and shove a wheelbarrow around and take down that chain-link fence, on the way to the big Sunday party. Later, the same treatment applies to a surveyor and other officials involved in determining the exact location of the property line. The significance of the dancing is lost on me, though I must admit it is entertaining to watch.

(l to r) Eddie Martinez as Pablo Del Valle, Kimberli Flores as Tania Del Valle,
Peri Gilpin as Virginia Butley, and Mark Pinter as Frank Butley in “Native
Gardens” (Photo by Jim Cox)

Director Edward Torres and his actors manage to keep all the balls in the air without collisions, no small feat given the near-constant motion.

Pinter cruises along as the retiree who is really only interested in his gardening (and determined to win the coveted “Best Garden” award from the local garden club), at least until that garden seems threatened.

Gilpin (of “Frasier” fame) gives off an air of privilege, though when push comes to shove, her family’s Polish background comes out and she proves an effective verbal street fighter. She is perhaps better defined by her costumes (by Jennifer Brawn Gittings) than the others, though Frank’s tucked-in jean shirt is also a dead giveaway to his status.

Flores’ Tania, about to defend her dissertation in anthropology, is no verbal slouch either. She, from New Mexico, though of Mexican ancestry, and Virginia have a few exchanges that begin as peacemaking efforts and end up rather more explosive.

Martinez’s Pablo has to try to salvage what he can of sanity and dignity,  having unwittingly precipitated the crisis with his ambition.

Balistrieri and Guzman may or may not belong in this show, but they could go on the road as comedic dancers.

“Native Gardens” boasts a fascinating sound design (credit Mikhail Fiksel), and an admirable set (that tree is truly amazing) by Collette Pollard, nicely lit by Amanda Zieve.

Zacarías is one of the most-produced playwrights of the day – her “Into the Beautiful North” premiered last year at San Diego Repertory Theatre. There are ideas worthy of discussion here, but they are too often used in the service of quick, shallow laughs.

— Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at infodame@cox.net.

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