Theater Review: “Native Gardens” — A Flowering Feud

The show’s attempt at satire comes off as blunt and lecture-heavy at times, but the production still manages to be an engaging comedy of manners.

Native Gardens by Karen Zacarías. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Staged by the Merrimack Repertory Theater, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA, through October 7.

Gabriel Marin (Pablo De Valle), Vivia Font (Tania Del Valle), Joel Colodner (Frank Butley), and Navida Stein (Virginia Butley) in the Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s production of “Native Gardens.” Photo: Meghan Moore.

By Erik Nikander

Americans take their lawns seriously. Just ask Senator Rand Paul, who supposedly stacked plant debris too close to his neighbor’s property line, incensing the guy to the point that he confronted and assaulted Paul, leaving him with six broken ribs. Pride in one’s property can lead otherwise reasonable people to drastic, outlandish deeds. Karen Zacarías builds her new comedy, Native Gardens, on this bedrock of irrationality. Her play mines, for raucous humor and social commentary, a neighborhood clash of egos and conflicting attitudes. At times, the show’s attempt at satire comes off as blunt and lecture-heavy, but the production still manages to be an engaging comedy of manners, thanks in no small part to the cast’s commitment to the material and Merrimack Repertory Theatre’s exceptional design work.

Tania and Pablo Del Valley (Vivia Font and Gabriel Marin, respectively) move into a new Washington, DC home. Pablo is starting a job at a prestigious law firm, Tania is finishing up her doctorate. They have a baby on the way. Their older white neighbors, Frank and Virginia Butley (Joel Colodner and Navida Stein), are happy at first to welcome this bright, ambitious young Latinx couple to the neighborhood. Soon, however, a discovery about their property line threatens Frank’s chances to win a local gardening contest. What begins as a minor dispute balloons into chaos, transforming an initial scene of domestic harmony into a landscaping war zone.

Zacarías’s steady-handed escalation of tension over the course of the play is among her script’s merits. Accumulating subtle emotional slights, bruised egos, and moments of selfishness, the playwright builds the conflict between the two families without sacrificing the characters’ innate likability. Yes, the Butleys may be set in their ways and slightly racist — in the well-meaning but clumsy way many white baby boomers are. But at their core they are kind people. Likewise, the Del Valleys may escalate the territorial dispute in a somewhat-brusque manner, but their desire to attain the kind of comfortable life the Butleys enjoy is wholly understandable. Even though the characters become caught up in comic mishaps — orchestrated with skill and sensitivity by director Giovanna Sardelli — they retain an appealing sense of vulnerability.

This warm, humanistic feeling is partly generated by the cast, who give keenly comic performances. As Tania, Vivia Font is smart, pointed, and earnest. She embodies the character’s “passionately rational” perspective, bursting with eagerness for a better future. The fact Font is performing the role of this pregnant character while pregnant herself only makes her commitment more impressive. Gabriel Marin, as the anxious, ambitious Pablo, exhibits a live-wire comedic physicality. He’s endlessly expressive, whether he’s projecting the courtroom confidence of a lawyer or afflicted by the awkward reticence that comes when entering new social circles.

Marin’s timing and presence are matched by Joel Colodner, whose Frank is a man who is wounded to the core by the smallest of slights. When faced with the prospect of losing another gardening contest to the hated Phillip Saxon, he doubles over, wrought with agony and shame. His performance gives genuine weight to what could otherwise feel like a silly, low-stakes conflict. In contrast, Navida Stein plays Virginia with an intensity and a shrewdness that suits her character’s background as a Lockheed Martin engineer. She’s had to battle institutional sexism to get where she is, and Stein conveys the character’s savvy. Battling the Butleys will not be so easy.

MRT’s technical approach to Native Gardens is largely naturalistic, a decision that works well. Alexis Distler’s scenic work is especially impressive, providing the play with a homey, lived-in quality. The contrast between the immaculate, trimmed hedges of the Butleys’ yard and the smattering of dirt and rust trails on the Del Valleys’ formerly-neglected house sets up the conflict visually from the start.  In addition, the tight, packed-together set-up of the homes aptly expresses a stifling social atmosphere. Karen Perlow’s lighting and Miranda Kau Giurleo’s costumes highlight the universal nature of the story. It feels as if these comic misunderstandings could happen anywhere, and to anyone.

Native Gardens succeeds as a comedy of errors, but its stabs at social criticism and state-of-the-nation metaphor fall short. There are insightful moments, such as when the characters’ differing methods of gardening highlight cultural divergence. Frank feels that his imported plants are like immigrants, needlessly maligned for taking over the local flora. Tania fires back by comparing his plants to colonizers inflicting their will on natives that didn’t want them around. Other scenes, however, contain lengthy, heavy-handed speeches on national identity that might be engaging in a sociology class, but don’t suit drama. Authorial (and sometimes directorial) underlining distracts from the narrative’s flow. Why work so hard to communicate ideas that the audience members would likely have gotten on their own?

Also, the play’s occasional preachiness reflects its aversion to risky storytelling. The final scene in particular feels like a rushed attempt to tie every loose end up in a neat and happy multicultural bow. In truth, the differences between the Butleys and the Del Valleys are not really so vast. One wonders if the Butleys’ objections would have been stronger if, rather than a lawyer at a prestigious firm and an erudite grad student, a working-class Latinx couple had moved in among the DC elite.Had that been the case, show’s take on American society’s polarization may have felt more sharp and potent. The comfort level here makes the script more of a sitcom than a satire — albeit quite a funny sitcom. Native Gardens is hilarious, but it’s hard not to wish these gardens had harbored a snake or two.

Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.

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