Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" contains a character who repeats the line “good fences make good neighbors” like it's a kind of mantra. Karen Zacharias’ Native Gardens begs to differ. Most of the 90-minute comedy implies that, instead of “fences,” Frost's fellow should have said “barricades.”
It’s a tale of two gardens. A rusty chain-link fence separates Frank Butley’s immaculate, imitation Eden from new neighbors Tania and Pablo del Valle’s barren, fixer-upper tract, graced only by an ancient oak tree.
Their houses are in an old, traditional part of town. Most of the silver-haired inhabitants held prestigious jobs in Washington, D.C. The del Valles may not be the first persons of color to live in the neighborhood, but when their moving van pulls up, eyebrows rise. The next-door Butleys want to let them know right off that they are open to differences — at least to those they understand.
Now retired, Frank used to work for the “Agency” (if you get his drift). He channeled his obsessive personality toward winning first prize in the Potomac Horticultural Society’s “best garden” competition. He’s only reached “honorable mention” so far, and it’s driving him nuts. So he sprays, primps, and adores every chrysanthemum, hydrangea, and leaf of English ivy. No-nonsense wife Virginia, an engineer who works for a defense contractor, enables Frank’s obsession with pride.
Stereotypes accumulate around Frank and Harriet: WASP, governmental-insider-types. Given their creds, you can guess who got their vote for president with near certainty. But then, Frank says he “almost voted for Obama,” and Virginia could qualify as a feminist role model.
Strereotypes accumulate around the del Valles, though their credentials should erase them all. Born in Chile, Pablo just joined one of the most respected industrial law firms in D.C. He already envisions his name on the letterhead. Besides expecting a baby in five weeks, Tania is finishing up her doctoral dissertation and has a love — as great as Frank’s — for horticulture. But with a difference: he uses pesticides, insecticides, and whatever else will abolish imperialistic weeds. Most of his plants, so to speak, are foreign born — i.e. immigrants.
Not only that, he detests the de Valle’s oak tree. Frank chopped its twin down years ago.
In contrast, Tania espouses “native gardens,” indigenous plants, even weeds, to re-balance the ecosystem. In other words, she’s eager to abolish immigrant vegetation, which, we learn, can terrorize a landscape. Frank’s garden, meanwhile, has an open border policy.
Tania and Frank will lock horns. Trigger #1: Pablo wants to impress the legal higher ups. Though their dust bowl backyard could audition for The Grapes of Wrath, Frank wants to host a barbecue for the Bigs on Saturday — just six days away — and wants the beginnings of a native garden already in place when they arrive.
Trigger #2: a surveyor discovers that the Del Valles’ property line extends a full two feet into the Butleys' yard. Not only that, the total footage would increase the property value by over $38,000.
That’s the set-up. But there’s a twist: the playwright shuffles the expected traits: Tania (a game Kimberli Flores) is pregnant and finishing a dissertation; they say you can’t do both. Though she probably wouldn’t give a hoot about feminism, Virginia (Peri Gilpin, of Frasier fame) forged her career with such determination she could wave a banner for the cause. Pablo (a mostly harried Eddie Martinez) is an in-demand lawyer — from Chile? Absolutely.
Each year sees several plays about two couples who begin amicably and end up as flying body parts. What’s interesting about Native Gardens: the characters often find themselves on the opposite side from their spouses. But just when you think that Virginia might bond with Tania, or Frank (an over-animated Mark Pinter) with Pablo, they flip again. And along the way, they shoot litanies of –isms at each other — sexism, racism, ageism — and then act them out.
At full volume. In the Old Globe’s production, the actors shout 60 percent of the time, maybe more. And though the play touches on button-pushing issues — immigration, in particular — excessively strained comedic antics overpower — and trivialize — them.
The cast, directed by Edward Torres, works well at a crisp tempo. Scenic designer Collette Pollard’s bipolar set features an large oak tree plunked centerstage (which must have been like putting a ship in a bottle), and Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ costumes reveal character in a jiff.
The production begins as an intriguing toe-to-toe comedy, unravels into farce, then slides into slapstick silliness, followed by an unbelievably joyous ending: everyone gets exactly what they want. No sitcom would venture this far into Never-neverland.