Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
President Trump has his border issues and fence dreams, but the ignition of accusations and counter-accusations that he has inflamed pale in comparison to the increasing tensions between these two sets of neighbors who have just met while amiably sipping wine and eating chocolate. Karen Zacarías has seized a national moment with her Native Gardens, touted in its pre-marketing as "a cutting-hedge comedy." After its 2016 world premiere at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, the play has been produced by major theatre companies across the land and is now in its local premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Not only does the fast-paced, eighty-five-minute show touch on a topic many in the audience have surely experienced (i.e., neighbor disputes that explode into mini world wars), the play is a tongue-in-cheek, rib-tickling, but also sharply to the point dig at Trump's wall between Mexico and the U.S. and the great divide of opinions between citizens/neighbors it has engendered within our country.
Andrea Bechert has created an eye-popping setting of the two D.C.-area brick houses built in 1908one with is meticulously manicured backyard full of color and nary a stray leaf and one barren (at least for now) and dominated by a giant oak that one would swear is real. Steven B. Mannshardt's artistic lighting touches dramatically highlight the differences while Jeff Mockus's sound design completes the suburban setting with unseen chirping birds and symphonic insects. Looking at the scene, who can predict that it is about to be a major battleground with flying wads of dirt and a neighbor in gardening helmet attacking with her buzzing chain saw?
Veteran Bay Area favorites Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick are the conservative Butleyshe a stay-at-home consultant who has become a full-time gardener equipped with his Miracle-Gro and spraying insecticides and she, an engineer at Lockheed and a pioneering woman when no others had such a position. Frank's plants are his babies, and he looks after them as if they were a part of the blueblood, New England family he comes from. Virginia walks with a bold step, has a rough edge to her voice, and knows what it means to succeed against all adversityespecially since Frank's family rejected her as socially unfit for him. And while both are clearly conservative and a bit old school (missing the days when smoking, white rice, and Cat Stevens were all OK to like), they proudly declare of their new neighbors, "If I close my eyes, I would swear they are both all-American."
Michael Evans Lopez is Pablo, born with a silver spoon in his mouth (so claims his wife) to an aristocratic Chilean family and now the only person of color in his law firm and trying desperately to have his name added someday to the revered, D.C. law firm's letterhead. Tania (Marlene Martinez), from a family who has been in New Mexico for 200 years but still has to prove all the time that she is an American citizen, is completing her doctoral degree while awaiting the imminent birth of their first child. She quickly gets on a soapbox when it comes to natural gardening (native plants only, lots of spiders, doing none of the things Frank prides himself doing every day). Her neighbors call her (politely, at first) "irrational," but she corrects to say she is "passionately rational."
All four actors run the entire gamut from civil and courteous to monstrous and manic in wonderfully depicting their characters. They increasingly mirror the gaps that have developed in modern-day America, each finding it more and more easy to talk about the other couple in language we too often hear bantered about today. From one side of the border comes "Theyre Republicans!" (to which another character offers, "Theyre still people") with "They must be Democrats ... with that level of sanctimony" coming from the other.
While Karen Zacarías has tapped into a topic as current as the latest Tweet from our President, her treatment looks and feels most often like a TV sitcom from the 1970s/'80s. Lines are delivered faithfully by this talented cast, but many sound as if they are the sort written for a TV script and waiting for the recorded laugh track to react. Use of perfectly timed, simultaneously spoken lines coming from both yards particularly seem overdone and artificial; and while the surprise resolution of the neighbor crisis is funny and wonderfully performed, the denouement of "here's what happened next" delivered by both couples from their doorsteps is a bit hokey and elongated.
Besides a hilarious ongoing referral to "squatting" and "squatter's rights" (both in words and in the actions of the play's climatic moment), director Amy Gonzales has made a heyday of scene pauses through the appearances of three landscapers, all decked in green uniforms (part of Noah Marin's terrific costume designs) and dark glasses (think "Blues Brothers"). Actors Laura Espino and Mauricio Suarez along with crew member Ryan Hubbard bring gasps and then uneasy laughter from the audience as they predict the next levels of the increasing conflict by such acts as coming on stage when actors are absent and pulling one by one Frank's prized plants in preparation for the new fence.
Overall, Karen Zacarías' Native Gardens at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is a fun evening and a gentle reminder that we all need to be careful in playing into the border wars our president has declared. The treatment is overall light and somewhat contrived, but the point is made; and the laughs are the kind where we can both laugh at ourselves as well as at the actors in front of us.
Native Gardens, through September 16, 2018, at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday - Friday 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. and Saturday - Sunday, Noon - 6 p.m.