Humorous NATIVE GARDENS Tidily Scratches the Surface

PlayMakers Repertory Company’s production of Native Gardens, by Karen Zacarias, has the light-hearted, jaunty air of a sitcom. Neighbors get into a territory dispute over a backyard fence. As tempers flare, insults are hurled that reflect the current culture and political clashes. Some are played for laughs, others lightly hit their target, and all wraps up tidily in 90 minutes. Zacarias’ breezy tone is part of the play’s charm, as well as responsible for some of its flaws.

Frank Butley (Jeffrey Blair Cornell) and his wife Virginia (Julia Gibson) own a stylish townhouse with luscious backyard flower gardens. They are an older white couple, nearing retirement and financially secure. Pablo Del Valle (Alejandro Rodriguez) and his pregnant wife Tania (Sarita Ocón) have just moved into the fixer-upper next door. They are a highly educated, progressive, upwardly mobile, Latinx couple. Within the first few minutes, the contrasts between the couples are evident and the potential conflict rolled out.

As directed by Patrick Torres, this quartet of performers maintains a firm grip on Zacarias’ characters who border on cartoonish, almost as if they are a dartboard for punchlines. Cornell makes a somewhat tone-deaf Frank awkwardly charming, and ultimately sympathetic in his pursuit of winning an annual gardening competition. Gibson emphasizes Virginia’s toughness. She has her heart in the right place even if it is delivered with attitude and sometimes, a helping of well-meaning insensitivity. Rodriguez infuses Pablo with lots of ambitious energy that compliments the passionate temperament of Ocón’s Tania. Together, they create a lively, convincing portrait of a young family looking to put down roots.

While the plot revolves around the placement of the backyard fence – Pablo and Tania want to replace it, but discover that their property line actually extends into Frank’s prized flower beds – the conflict is used as a comic foil to address a variety of issues, including ageism, classism, racism, gender politics, and immigration. These topics are prodded, some more than others, and a few even semi-seriously, but none deeply. In fact, most of the laughs come at the expense of the stereotypical views held by Frank and Virginia. 

Although Zacarias seems to be interrogating white privilege, her generous use of humor mutes any profound revelations. The playwright skirts the sources of controversy that divide people in favor of an optimistic compromise and happy ending, which like cotton candy, tastes pleasant, but is fleeting.

PlayMakers’ production of Native Gardens runs through October 30. For more information visit https://playmakersrep.org/.

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