In this smart, 90-minute comedy by Karen Zacarías, border wars don’t just erupt between countries. They also are waged between neighbors.
Stinging satirical comedy abounds these days on TV, and occasionally infiltrates films. So maybe our theater needs more satire with bite — but also with heart. “Native Gardens” fills the bill splendidly.
In this smart, 90-minute comedy by Karen Zacarías, now fertilizing laughs in an Intiman Theatre production at the Jones Playhouse, border wars don’t just erupt between countries. They also are waged between neighbors.
Here, adjacent backyards breed mistrust and spur skirmishes. And as two high-contrast couples tangle over turf, no expensive border wall (in this case a fence, but the parallel with presidential plans for a U.S./Mexico wall are inescapable) could neatly resolve them.
The Del Valles — Pablo (played by Phillip Ray Guevara) and his pregnant wife, Tania (Sophie Franco) — are a young, professional Latinx pair who’ve just moved into a fixer-upper rowhouse in a coveted Washington, D.C., neighborhood. Virginia (Julie Briskman) and Frank (Jim Gall) Butley are their white, 60-something neighbors, well-heeled and well-established in their longtime home next door.
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The cultural/political distinctions between the two couples are appreciated and lampooned here — as are their contrasting garden aesthetics.
At first the Butleys are welcoming to their new neighbors, offering wine and chocolate as house gifts, and inviting the Del Valles over to admire their beautifully cultivated and manicured English-style garden (in full bloom in the marvelously detailed, dual backyards set by Lex Marcos). The Del Valles respond graciously to these advances, and try to overlook (or at least tolerate) the cultural, age and aesthetic gap between the couples.
But though everyone makes nice, their differences flare up anyway, in clumsy assumptions and an unanticipated dispute over property lines. And neighborliness be damned when footage is at stake.
Zacarías has the keen farcical instincts of the late Neil Simon (you could title this play “The Odd Couples”), but they’re matched with a trenchant social agenda. The script’s comedic rigging (which also includes a pending party for Pablo’s co-workers and a garden competition Frank desperately wants to win) could in lesser hands simply enforce stereotypes.
It’s easy to mock the Butleys, who aren’t exactly “woke” in their mistaken notions that Tania is Mexican (she’s actually New Mexican) and Pablo is a “token” employee in the tony law firm he’s joined who worked his way up by his bootstraps. (In fact, Pablo’s an Ivy League type from a rich Chilean family.)
But Zacarías is an equal-opportunity satirist who won’t let any of her characters off the hook of their own prejudices. She shrewdly captures the Del Valles’ own misconceptions about privileged white folk who use pesticides in their garden and vote Republican. (When Tania asks if the Butleys listen to NPR, Frank answers wryly, “We’re old but we’re not dead.”) And if on the surface Virginia’s life looks struggle-free, in reality she’s from a working-class background and defied sexist barriers to become a successful engineer.
For all the mounting frictions and slapstick temper tantrums (warning: innocent plants are brutalized), “Native Gardens” is essentially about opening borders — not reinforcing them. That’s not a given in a country where homeownership is still a keystone of pride and progress, but your neighbors may not look like you — or, as Matt Starritt emphasizes in his salsa/baroque sound design, march to the same beat.
Under the adroit direction of Arlene Martínez-Vázquez, the excellent cast keeps the tensions mounting and humor flowing. All four can be laughably ridiculous, yet without obliterating their characters’ genuine good intentions.
“Native Gardens” is one of the most produced plays in the U.S. currently, and its affordable small cast (which also includes two nonspeaking “landscape technicians,” doubling as stagehands) and single set are one reason. But more central to its success is the sliver of hope the play raises that, despite our fractured political landscape, we can all laugh at our foibles — and find common ground.
“Native Gardens,” by Karen Zacarías. Through Sept. 30; Intiman Theatre production at Jones Playhouse, 4045 University Way, Seattle; $28-$38; 206-315-5838, intiman.org