BWW Review: Should We Laugh or Cry? State of Civility Examined in NATIVE GARDENS at CPH
Negative racial and ethnic stereotypes, anti-ageism, political philosophical differences, and border conflicts are not usual topics for a comic play. But, author Karen Zacarías, whose "Native Gardens" is now in production at Cleveland Play House, believes "humor humanizes" when what could be the basis of a blood bath becomes a pool of laughter with a purpose.
"Native Gardens" is a comedy. Yes, a Neil Simon type of comedy, not a dark comedy with underlying meanings and hidden intentions where things are manipulated to fool the audience. Everything in "Native Gardens" is clearly sown on the landscape. In fact, the landscaping of two yards is the center of the comic gem.
No punches are pulled. Phrases like "you people," "privileged class," "old people, "Mexican," "Latino" and other non-pc words flow easily off the tongues of Frank, Virginia, Pablo and Tania as they battle over a fence, property lines, and the kinds of vegetation to be planted.
"Native Gardens" is a perfect piece to define and explain the political and societal climate of today.
The bright, witty and clever story tells the tale of the families Butley and Del Valle.
Virginia Butley is an engineer for a defense contractor. Frank, her husband, is now retired but was formerly a consultant for a government agency. They are wealthy, conservative Republicans who believe in the "American" way of life.
Pablo Del Valle, a rising attorney who is the token Hispanic at a prestigious law firm, and his very pregnant wife and doctoral candidate, Tania, have just purchased the home next to Frank and Virginia in the up-scale Georgetown neighborhood of DC.
The backyard of their houses are complete opposites. Frank is an obsessive gardener, fanatically pursuing the Gardener of the Year award from the local horticultural association. He uses a number of fertilizers and insecticides to insure the visual beauty of his garden. To hell with the environment.
Tania, an environmentalist, plans to make their backyard into an oasis for native plants, shrubs, butterflies and nature. No pesticides here.
The De Valles duo loves their backyard's century-old tree, while Frank hates the tree and its falling nuts and leaves which defile his meticulously cropped lawn and flowers.
At first the neighbors get along well, but when the Pablo and Tania find out that Frank has, by intent or not, planted on two-feet of their backyard, all hell breaks loose.
As the fence line issue soon spirals into an all-out border dispute, both couple's notions of race, taste, class and privilege bloom. As thebackyard brawl escalates, cultures collide and mudslinging ensues...literally.
The CPH production is nicely guided by Robert Barry Fleming. The humor stays comic, not bridging over into farcical ridiculousness. The characters are finely etched. The battle lines are clear.
Wynn Harmon creates a perfect caricature for Frank as an up-tight, tightly wound, khaki pants, button-down-collared, starched-shirt wearing conservative.
Charlotte Maier etches a clear role as the snobbish Virginia, a woman-of-privilege and wealth. She is a "refined," wine-drinking lady, until the gloves come off and her claws are revealed.
Natalie Camunas, a second-gen Latinx actor, has the soul of Tania, and unfurls it with ease and purpose.
Grayson DeJesus, gives a nice realistic depth and texture to Pablo.
Jason Ardizzone-West's scenic design is breathtaking. Every detail, every flower, tree and shrub reeks real! As someone in the audience said, "I want to move into that house (referring to the perfectly conceived House and Gardendomicile of Frank and Virginia.)
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: "Native Garden" is that perfect script which grabs and holds an audience with humor and good story telling, while clearly making its philosophical point. It gets a picture-perfect production at CPH. It is a wonderful piece to define and explain the political and societal climate of today. Go! See! Enjoy and learn!!
"Native Gardens" which runs ninety-minutes without an intermission, can be seen in CPH's Allen Theatre through May 19, 2019. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to http://www.clevelandplayhouse.com.