- Courtesy of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- Left to right: Vince Rossano, Lili Gamache, Jamie Rezanour and Thomas Christopher Nieto
In Native Gardens, a recent play by Karen Zacarías produced by Vermont Stage, a fence between two backyards triggers an avalanche of neighborly animosity, all to comic effect. It erupts from two couples who see themselves as the nicest possible neighbors but can't retain their civility when their differences — not to mention their taste in flowers — start to define them.
It's a funny show that sometimes tries too hard, throwing a Marx Brothers finale into a comedy of manners. The banter merits chuckles, but director John Nagle seeks guffaws with physical gags. These earned some laughs at Thursday's preview, though they didn't send the audience into stitches. The play has a pleasurable and timely conceit, but Zacarías milks it too hard, trying to turn the neighborhood dispute into social commentary with the addition of identity politics.
The play is set in the adjoining backyards of two townhouses in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Frank and Virginia Butley are in their late fifties, white, prosperous and National Public Radio-enlightened. Their crisply manicured English garden and just-so lawn chairs are ready for the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. Indeed, Frank competes in an annual horticultural competition and aches to better his previous honorable mention with a ribbon for best garden.
The house next door has been long neglected, but the new neighbors are a young couple energetic enough to bring it back to glory. Tania Del Valle is eight months pregnant and finishing her doctoral degree. Husband Pablo is an associate at a high-powered D.C. law firm and hopes to become its first Latino partner. His first bold move is inviting his boss and 60 coworkers over for a barbecue the day before Frank's gardening judges will descend.
With a sitcom clock ticking, the new neighbors converge on the ratty chicken-wire fence that Frank has disguised with English ivy. He's always hated it; the prior neighbors put it up, and now both couples agree that the Del Valles will replace it with a wooden one. When Pablo discovers in their mortgage deed that their yard extends two feet into Frank and Virginia's, he can't restrain his glee at acquiring more property. But that strip of land contains Frank's prized hydrangeas and soon becomes a DMZ of entitlement. How ruthless will the neighbors become?
Bluster ensues as the play humorously checks off the many ways in which the couples differ: age, taste, ethnicity, politics, social values and wealth. The comedy sets the two couples on a collision course of insults designed to make them, and by extension prejudice itself, look silly.
The episodic script is designed for a brisk pace, and this production delivers the mildly exhilarating feeling that if you blink you'll miss a grimace or a spit take. Nagle harnesses the actors' ability to toss off rapid-fire exchanges, and their effortless precision is satisfying to behold.
But the direction slathers on too-cute bits of physical comedy, such as making master gardener Frank spritz his plants with insecticide in rhythm to a hokey soundtrack. The falling-off trim board on the Del Valles' fixer-upper is not a gag worth repeating. And the final confrontation — in which the four adults resort to goofy play-acting — made this reviewer wince. Comedy, like garden design, is a matter of taste. This play is for fans of silliness and stereotypes.
The show is a fast-moving 90 minutes with no intermission. Alas, that's partly because the playwright elevates the battle between neighbors to an unrealistic frenzy without any feasible conclusion. A little epilogue describes a resolution that neither the story nor the characters earn, but the hasty final plot twist is so sweet and enjoyable that it's easy to forgive.
Native Gardens isn't incisive social commentary, but humiliating stuffed shirts is comedy's core competency, and the performances capture the stiff civility of people strained to the snapping point.
Lili Gamache, as Virginia, has the comic stage presence to make the stereotype aspect of her character delightful. But she goes further and invests Virginia with human qualities; her genuine, motherly concern for pregnant Tania is a ray of light. Always lively, Gamache turns on a no-bullshit gaze to defend Frank's garden, then melts with affection when imagining a chance to babysit.
As Frank, Vince Rossano is an affable fussbudget. He's taken up gardening to relieve chronic stress, and Rossano plays him as if the change has worked wonders. Frank's only ostensible problems now are a twitchy wariness of the new neighbors and an OCD horror of stray acorns from their oak tree.
Jamie Rezanour's Tania is so youthful and enthusiastic that she's easily swept into passionate confrontations. Rezanour emphasizes her earnest good nature; her burst of invective in Spanish seems to startle her as much as it does Virginia on the receiving end.
In Thomas Christopher Nieto's energetic performance, Chilean Pablo glides onstage with aristocratic self-possession, but it takes little to unleash his inner hothead, a transformation that's fun to watch.
Jeff Modereger's skillful, detailed scenic design places the audience on either side of the backyard gardens. The well-realized façades of the two houses share the same architecture, but one shows dilapidation, the other fastidious maintenance.
In a production played for laughs, director Nagle and the actors keep the insults from stinging. Fighting over a strip of land is a clever premise, but Zacarías takes it no further than a situation, failing to achieve an illuminating metaphor. The differences between the characters don't trigger any of their actions, so the story clarifies nothing about what polarizes people. This border dispute is only an occasion for selfish impulses to overcome otherwise decent people. But it's also a chance to laugh at how little it takes to bring out greed, and foolishness, in anyone.