Native Gardens – City Theatre’s latest Mainstage production about two couples living next door to each other in an affluent neighborhood in Northwest D.C. – explores questions of identity, power, and ownership through the lens of seemingly minor disagreement. However, as playwright Karen Zacharías suggests, to the involved parties, such disagreements are rarely as minor as they appear to outside observers.
This sharp, funny, and self-aware production introduces audiences to Frank and Virginia Butley, an older, white D.C. establishment couple, and Tania and Pablo Del Valle, hailing from New Mexico and Chile, respectively – D.C. transplants and new homeowners expecting their first child.
Frank (Cotter Smith), a gardener who sees himself at war with nature in his efforts to create an unblemished work of art, prowls his garden’s concrete paths looking for bugs to blast with pesticide, obsessive in his engagement with a hobby that was supposed to help him relax. Meanwhile, Virginia (Laurie Klatscher) awkwardly tries to relate to her new neighbors with a defensive edge appropriate to her work as a defense contractor.
Pablo (Juan Rivera Lebron) is eager to prove himself at his new job and launch his family into prosperity. Tania (Evelyn Hernandez), a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology, has “passionately rational” opinions about encouraging the return of indigenous plants and critters to her new backyard, and delights in all the aspects of their fixer-upper the Butleys deem an eyesore.
The play opens with both couples anxiously awaiting the judgment of their peers. Pablo, a new hire at a high-powered law firm, has impulsively invited the entire staff to a barbecue in their unfinished backyard the day before Frank is scheduled to entertain the judges of the Potomac Horticultural Society awards, in which he hopes to transcend his perennial status as an honorable mention. Both plans are thrown into disarray by the discovery that Frank’s pristine garden beds encroach two feet over the Del Valle’s property line, launching both households into an escalating dispute.
Zacarías’s witty dialogue, expertly bandied by all four actors, exposes the shifting meanings of the vocabulary of social change, and the mechanics by which feuding parties shape and reshape the narratives of their opposition. Klatscher and Smith, especially, excel in the play’s comedy of manners as they blunder through early attempts at cross-cultural communication and make thorough comedic use of subtext. Hernandez energetically embodies the conflict’s ups and downs, appearing alternately conciliatory and indignant as she initially attempts to mediate between both sides.
The production features predictably excellent set design from Tony Ferrieri, one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific scenic artists, whose rendering of the adjacent backyards expands to fill every inch of the playing space, highlighting the sharp contrast between Virginia and Frank’s manicured garden and Pablo and Tania’s dusty fixer-upper. Light design by Paul Whitaker strategically creates both cohesion and isolation between the two properties as the play’s focus volleys back and forth between the couples. Sound design by Daniel Ocanto and costumes by Madison Michalko round out the play’s convincing realism.
City Theatre co-artistic director Marc Masterson’s direction mines the comedic value of the couples’ contrasts but neither he nor Zacharías strays too far from the underlying premise that the Butleys and Del Valles are more alike than they are different, facilitating the neat resolution of a thorny and deeply rooted conflict within the allotted 90 minutes.
Native Gardens. Continues through Sun., April 2. City Theatre Mainstage. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. $20-70. citytheatrecompany.org