BWW Review: Trinity Rep's NATIVE GARDENS Unpacks the Complicated World of Neighbors and Fences
What do you do when you finally buy your dream home and then immediately run into issues with the next-door neighbors? On the surface, that's essentially what NATIVE GARDENS is about, but as the plot starts to develop, issues of age, race, gender, immigration, privilege, environmentalism, class, heritage and more start to percolate to the surface in what began as a feud about a fence. Despite all those heavy topics, it's a comedy, and a genuinely hilarious one at that. Smart comedies like this serve to shine a light on real issues without becoming didactic and preachy, and all the characters get a chance to have their say, while also getting immediately contradicted by someone else.
Tania and Pablo Del Valle, a young Latino couple buy their first house together in a fancy Washington D.C. suburb. Next door is an older white couple, Frank and Virginia Butley, who have lived in their house for 30 years. At first, the two couples get along, but when a property survey reveals Pablo and Tania's yard extends two feet into Frank and Virginia's--and right through Frank's prized garden, relations quickly degrade and every little difference between the couples becomes fair play in a war of words, pesticides and a garden hose.
What makes the back and forth between the two couples so satisfying is the fact that they are all evenly matched in terms of intelligence, and even though they've only known each other a few hours before relations start to go south, the few things they do know are quickly perverted into cutting insults that are thoroughly satisfying. The phrase "botanical xenophobia" gets lobbed out at a certain point, and there are more than enough zingers that even if you miss a few while laughing, rest assured there are more coming.
Even though the audience starts out identifying more with Pablo and Tania, we can still empathize with Frank and Virginia's argument that they didn't knowingly take property that wasn't theirs. Timothy Crowe's (Frank) hangdog expressions as he mourns the demise of his lovely flowers are both heartbreaking and hilarious. Anne Scurria as Virginia gets the best one liners, and also manages to say some of the most offensive lines in the play, but without becoming unlikeable when she does it. For instance, at one point she warns Pablo "don't become a token" at his law firm, but then quickly reminds them that as a female engineer of a certain age, she has found herself avoiding landmines just like that throughout her career.
This is the subtle brilliance of this play--even for four people who, on the surface seem like they have lead significantly different lives, playwright Karen Zacarias drills down on shared experiences and shows us how much they really have in common. Trinity veterans Scurria and Crowe both become their characters completely and their performances seem effortless. Daniel Duque-Estrada as Pablo and second year Brown/Trinity Rep MFA student Maria Gabriela Rosado Gonzalez as Tania both have their work cut out for them playing opposite such titans of the theatre, but they manage remarkably well. In particular Gonzalez, who has many of the more intense scenes, never manages to go overboard or let her energy drop. She also has some of the best facial reactions while other characters are talking. Between her reactions and Crowe's "old man" "get off my lawn" grimaces, it feels like you could watch this play ten times and see something new every time.
Even though in early April it's still freezing outside, spring is on the way, and this play is a breath of fresh air. Excellent performances all around, and amazing sets by Dahlia Al-Habieli make this play a hilarious and thought-provoking night of theatre.
Native Gardens written by Karen Zacarias and directed by Christie Vela runs April 5 - May 6. Tickets are on sale by phone at (401) 351-4242, online at www.TrinityRep.com, or in person at the theater's box office at 201 Washington Street, Providence.