Review: Clever ‘Native Gardens’ Seeded With Laughs and Hot Topics


City Theatre continues its run of topical dramas with a spirited, smart production of Karen Zacarias’s Native Gardens, a play that has the elements of a TV sitcom, but turns those elements on their heads.

Imagine two couples – one aging, conservative and white living next door to a younger progressive pair with different ethnic backgrounds — clashing over a disputed border. Cue the laugh track.

But Zacarias is too clever for stereotypes. The elder Virginia and Frank have faced their share of discrimination and failure, while Tania and Pablo, seen as Mexicans, are not. Tania’s Spanish ancestors settled in the American Southwest long before Frank’s British family came to the colonies, while Pablo grew up in a wealthy Chilean family and attended posh schools. 

From left, Juan Rivera Lebron, Cotter Smith, Laurie Klatscher and Evelyn Hernandez in “Native Gardens” at City Theatre. (Images by Kristi Jan Hoover)

Virginia hails from struggling Polish-American stock in Buffalo. She’s an engineer at Lockheed-Martin, the only woman in a field filled with men. After many years, she’s finally gotten a woman’s room at her office. “You have to be twice as good to get half as far,” she complains.

The couples’ differences quickly surface in their adjoining backyards in Northwest Washington, D.C. The retired Frank (he used to work “at the Agency”) has polished his yard to perfection. A flawless lawn bordered by neatly arranged flowering plants has continued to thrive, thanks to Frank’s frequent blasts of pesticide.

The visibly pregnant Tania, though, wants her “native garden” filled with local plants, attracting bees among other insects, the targets of Frank’s spray gun. She hugs a mature tree that drops its leaves on her packed dirt. Its leaves also land next door, and Virginia and Frank want it cut down.

Veteran Tony Ferrieri, who recently retired as City’s director of production, designed the set, a masterpiece of realism, looking and feeling exactly like the 19th-century townhouses in that part of D.C. Frank’s garden is meticulous, and his deck is clean and well-furnished.

Pablo, an attorney, wants immediate changes in his shabby yard, to impress members of the high-powered law firm where he longs to become a partner. He’s planned a barbecue party in a few days and has hired gardeners to spruce things up. First to go is a sad chain link fence covered with English ivy that separates the yards. A high wood fence is in the works.

As Tania Evelyn Hernandez plays a pregnant Ph.D. candidate who loves the tree in the yard of her new home.

The clashes begin when Pablo’s survey discovers that his neighbors’ yard is 2 feet inside his. In the course of the battle, insults are fired off, threats are made invoking “the Agency” and tough lawyers and compromises are spurned.

Even an effort by Tania, played by a vibrant Evelyn Hernandez, to deal with things “the woman’s way,” by working with Virginia, an imperious Laurie Klatscher, flops. 

The men fail as well. Cotter Smith plays Frank as a clueless hardliner who draws most of the laughs. Juan Rivera Lebron as Pablo wields his class and legal power like weapons.

All four are experienced actors who respond enthusiastically to the equally experienced director, Marc Masterson, also City’s co-artistic director. Native Gardens is the complete package of acting, directing, set design and other key production pieces. (However, the production notes could use a spell check.)

Zacarias works in contemporary American social issues such as discrimination, immigration, feminism and even a little gay reference without beating her audience over the head. It’s a comedy, after all.

Native Gardens” is at City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side, through April 2. Tickets and details: 412-431-2489 or citytheatrecompany.org.

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