BWW Review: NATIVE GARDENS at Victory Gardens Theater
The world premiere of Karen Zacarías's NATIVE GARDENS at Victory Gardens Theater provides ample humor and wit-even if the playwright's neighborly metaphor sometimes feels too on the nose.
The play introduces us to two couples living next door to one another in a wealthy D.C. suburb: Tania (Paloma Nozicka) and Pablo Del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz), a young Latino couple new to the neighborhood, and Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks) and Frank Butley (Patrick Clear), a well-off white couple who are long-time residents with a meticulously maintained backyard. When Tania and Pablo suggest replacing a decrepit chain link fence between the two yards with a new wood one, all seems well. But when a survey of the land reveals Virginia and Frank may be taking up more land than they're legally entitled, a dispute ensues-and the conversation widens to issues much larger than just the maintenance of backyard gardens.
Marti Lyons's direction mines Zacarías's script for every potential ounce of comedy and keeps the play moving at a brisk pace. Laughs abound in the production, even as the situation becomes tense. The design elements add to the heightened atmosphere. Williams Boles's scenic design feels brilliantly realistic and detailed, and he demonstrates a striking contrast between the Butleys' impeccable yard and the Del Valles' unkempt outdoor space. Mikhail Fiksel keeps it playful and smart with his sound design-listen closely for Latino pop songs as well as instrumental versions of some recent pop hits. Samantha Jones's costume designs also highlight the generational gap between the two couples. She gives the Butleys a decidedly preppy style, while the Del Valles don more relaxed looks.
The four-person ensemble leans into Zacarías' script, and they prove more than ready for NATIVE GARDENS' battle of the neighbors. Brooks, who never disappoints onstage, finds the balance between Virginia's neighborly instincts and her defensive impulses. She allows Virginia's indignation to slowly build as the play progresses, culminating in a heightened scene with Nozicka's Tania. Nozicka comes out swinging from the get-go. She's enjoyable to watch, but she begins the play in full force and doesn't give Tania much room to grow. Ruiz takes a more tempered approach as the winsome Pablo-he's endearing but he's also not afraid to stare down his neighbors. Clear makes the most of Frank's obsession with his garden, and it's a joy to watch.
Though NATIVE GARDENS is quite funny and Zacarías intriguingly probes larger issues of race and ownership, she doesn't always give the play's metaphor enough room to breathe. The argument over the fence becomes a clear "border dispute" by the play's end, and she strips the framework of some of its subtlety. Perhaps that's Zacarías's intention here, but the dialogue still reads overly pointed. Nevertheless NATIVE GARDENS comical approach to serious questions makes it immensely watchable-allowing us to reflect and be entertained at the same time.
Photo by Liz Lauren