By Bill Hirschman
Native Gardens is, indeed, a comedy infused with character-based humor that satisfies as a warm summer evening of laughs.
But Karen Zacarías’ social satire at GableStage gently weaves in themes about a new generation gap, unintentional racism, pride, ambition, immigration, borders, ageism, classism, competition, obsession and a half-dozen other topics.
Still, to understand the most fascinating aspect, we need to sketch out the situation.
Pablo and Tania Del Valle, a 30-ish couple with Hispanic roots, have just moved into a neglected fixer-upper home in a venerable upscale neighborhood next to the faultless identical home owned for decades by Frank and Virginia Butley. The Del Valles joke privately that living adjacent to the couple in their late 60s or early 70s is akin to living next to Dick Van Dyke. The older couple keep the home and especially a gorgeous obsessively-tended backyard English garden in award-worthy condition.
Everyone is smart, witty, friendly and anxious to bond until the young people discover that the lovely garden intrudes about two feet into their property. They had planned already to replace everything on their property with eco-friendly but boring foliage cited in the play title. And they want to do it in less than a week from now when the husband has invited his bosses from his law firm to a career-building party in the backyard.
Enter a parade of surveyors and landscapers, and exit neighborly relations in an escalating spiral of antagonism that seemingly can only end in suburban Armageddon. Well, don’t worry, this is a comedy, but….
The point is that Zacarías, a quartet of A-game actors and deft imaginative direction by Victoria Collado subtly intersect questions that go beyond cartoonish claims of property rights. It ventures into an examination of “ownership” — not just of land, but of society, of this country. Does it belong to those who developed it or those who have a pursued a legal right to be there? Should newcomers be open to assimilation? Should the old guard be more open to an evolving world? These issues are not remotely as simple as we describe it and the characters’ lines ostensibly about the garden and property lines intentionally have double and triple meanings.
Frank asks, “You wanted to put down roots here… in a stately neighborhood with all the other K Street lawyers and doctors and lobbyists. Why did you move here if you wanted to change everything?” Tania answers, “We don’t want to change everything. We just want to add our touch to the landscape.” But later, Frank complains, “All we did was take something ugly and make it beautiful.”
Zacarías gifts this quartet with scores of witty lines that communicate their intelligence, their undercarriage of motivations and their social attitudes. Pablo, the son of a wealthy Chilean family, suggests barbeque for the party rather than ethnic foods because “it puts everyone at ease. Cool and casual. Show them we comfortably fit in the landscape they know. We can do American Wasp Success – or imitate it.”
The Butleys privately bemoan the advent of a younger generation with ambition and power, what someone nails as Boomers versus Millennials. Virginia says, “Now everything we love is bad.” Frank adds, “Like margarine, and white rice….and Cat Stevens.”
The Butleys ask with a studied and faulty attempt at political correctness whether Tania’s desire for these plants comes from “your rich Mexican culture.” In a deceptively complex reaction, she immediately rebukes the classification in that her family has lived in New Mexico for more than 200 years. She fires backs asking where Frank’s ancestors come from. When he says England, she shoots back, “Do you introduce yourself as an English-American?”
This is all carried off with polished comic expertise by veterans David Kwiat and Barbara Sloan as the Butleys, whose voices perfectly communicate the confidence of the comfortable and the confusion of the suddenly uncomfortable. Kevin Cruz, last seen as the wolf in Theater Lab’s Refuge, fearlessly inhabits a Pablo who comes from a priviledged background and is now relegated to one of “them” in his new country. And Diana Garle. you never catch her acting, yet she, once again invisibly, magically transforms into a complex but totally familiar character as Tania.
The quartet convincingly chart the slow but marketed erosion of what initially seemed to be a promising friendship slipping into hardening smiles and then outright antagonism.
These are bright people who see themselves as reasonably socially sophisticated. Tania isn’t letting her eight-months pregnancy interfere with her doctoral dissertation. Pablo is on the cusp of becoming a partner. Frank is a veteran government administrator. Virginia is a boundary-crushing aviation engineer.
It can be argued that the resolution could not be less likely given what we have seen, but it’s the only way this could have a happy ending.
Zacarías, a veteran playwright, has divided the scenes with wordless vignettes illustrating the deteriorating relationships and the physical invasion of the contractors. But Collado, whose credits include The Amparo Experience, has inventively elevated these opportunities by playing drolly-chosen music to accompany the actors silently pantomiming including dance moves, each to a different piece such as the theme from Jaws and A Fistful of Dollars.
Special praise is due scenic designer Frank J. Oliva, plant designer Victoria Murawski and prop designer Katie Ellison for creating the design and construction of these side by side environments mirroring each other in construction but wildly different from the array of roses on one side to the dead leaves on the other. The images they have created under a cartoonish blue sky with clouds speaks volumes about both families.
Kudos are due also to lighting designer Tony Galaska who provides a wide array of times of day and night, plus subtle effects underscoring emotional turmoil.
Native Gardens is a satisfying if intentionally lighter closer for the second season of Producing Artistic Director Bari Newport who is rebuilding the company post-pandemic into a welcome major player in South Florida theater.
Native Gardens plays through July 16 at GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. 2 p.m. Wednesday and Sunday; 7 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Running time 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets $27-$70 including fees. Call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.