BWW Review: Arena Stage Goes Local with NATIVE GARDENS
Local playwright Karen Zacarías is adept with DC area inside jokes; I will give her that. References to federal government agencies and specific neighborhoods abound in her latest play, Native Gardens. Now in performance at Arena Stage in co-production with the Guthrie Theater, the play delivers more than a few zingers that get the audience laughing and thinking at the same time. Unfortunately, it is essentially a 30-minute sitcom presented in a theatrical setting for 90+ minutes. Director Blake Robison (now Artistic Director at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, but formerly of Round House Theatre in Bethesda) keeps the proceedings moving along the best he can, but in the end, we have a less than streamlined story we've all seen before, albeit with a bit of a local twist.
Tania (Jacqueline Correa) and Pablo (Dan Domingues) Del Valle have just moved into a posh DC area neighborhood. The house and accompanying backyard is a bit of a fixer upper, especially when you compare it to the Butley's house next door. The ambitious young couple is ready to tackle the project though, just as they are ready to tackle a new job at a prestigious law firm (in the case of Pablo) and a PhD program (in the case of Tania). The Butley's know about hard work on the yard too. Frank Butley's (Steve Hendrickson) elegant, formal garden is his pride and joy and it shows. He's determined to win the area's award for best garden this year so he tends it endlessly - making sure it's perfect.
As you might imagine, Frank and his wife Virginia (Sally Wingert) - a longtime engineer for Lockheed Martin - are elated when the Del Valle's move in because there's a chance they'll no longer have to look at the house's mess of a lawn. The Del Valle's couldn't be more different from the Buckley's (insert multiple discussions about race, ethnicity, age, and political leanings conveying this point....), but the Buckley's have every intention to be good neighbors and understand how they can benefit from the Del Valle's work on their property. For instance, they get super excited when the young couple announces their plan to replace a chain link fence with a tall wooden one. Unfortunately, this excitement dampens when they hear about Tania's plan for her own garden behind the fence. She's a bit granola-y and will only include plants native to the area (read: a lot of weeds). She also plans to keep a large oak tree that the Buckley's despise. Ah, well - at least there will be a fence, right?
An impromptu decision by Pablo to get in good with his new work colleagues by hosting a weekend barbeque leaves Tania - who is currently pregnant - scrambling to get the yard in top order as quick as possible. Pablo orders a new fence and hires some workers to install it. In the planning process, Tania realizes that their property line is not where they think it is. A surveyor confirms it. The property line is actually in the middle of Frank's beloved flowerbeds, so they'll need to place the fence there. This doesn't sit well with the Buckley's. Neighborly hijinks ensue - the kind you might see on television - and seem to carry on endlessly until interrupted by a new arrival.
Within this slight plot framework, Zacarías explores what it means to be foreign, what it means to be native, and how these larger issues of identity can influence how people interact with one another. It's a timely discussion to be sure (and yes, there is the obligatory reference to the wall), but - as presented here - we have stereotypical "DC area" players who - apart from the detailed discussions of gardening - are carrying out debates we've all seen one too many times.
Nonetheless, the cast is quite solid. Each performer sells the more over-the-top comedic moments in the script equally well. Each is also well-equipped to convey who his or her character is with everything they have, which nicely emphasizes "the other" theme that is so important to this script. The well-designed set and costumes reinforce this theme too. Joseph Tilford shows the contrast between the two houses and yards with his detailed and very realistic set. Karen Harmon's costumes, likewise, demonstrate the contrast between the two neighbors. For example, at one point, Virginia wears tailored pant suits while Tania is dressed in overalls.
In the end though, you are left wanting more, especially at one of the country's most prominent regional theaters.
Running Time: Around 90 minutes with no intermission.
NATIVE GARDENS plays at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater - 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC - through October 22, 2017. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.