Review: “Native Gardens”

A scene from “Native Gardens”, now playing at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., through July 2. – Liz Lauren


Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through July 2
Tickets: $15-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

Theater Critic

Karen Zacarías’ “Native Gardens” is a sitcom for the stage that exploits our current preoccupation with racism, sexism, classism, ageism, and a bunch of other “isms.” Relentlessly symmetrical and stereotypical, the 85-minute comedy is capped by a cop-out ending and epilogue. And Victory Gardens’s Chicago premiere is so broadly directed by Marti Lyons that any insights provided by the quartet of fine actors quickly dissipate.

The situation is a rooted-in-reality sort of backyard border dispute that escalates into absurdity, and William Boles’ set design of the backs and yards of two homes in an old, affluent Washington, DC, neighborhood suggests what’s to come. On one side is the manicured lawn, topiary, and flower-filled garden of the Butleys, long-time residents and senior citizens who relax on immaculate patio furniture. On the other is the debris-littered dirt domain of the Del Valles, who just purchased the rundown house they plan to renovate and love the big oak tree that the Butleys see as a source of unwanted acorns and insects.

While Frank Butley (Patrick Clear) tends his hydrangeas, peonies, and other colorful flora with meticulous care and pesticides, the very pregnant Tania Del Valle (Paloma Nozicka) is an equally passionate gardener who’s impatient to install a chemical-free native garden of indigenous “mid-Atlantic” plants and wildflowers. She views Frank’s non-native varieties as nutrient-sucking detriments to the environment; he regards her favorites as weeds.

The couples’ differences run a lot deeper than gardening philosophies. WASP-y, milquetoast Frank is a bureaucrat with the General Services Administration who hopes to finally win the local gardening club’s annual competition. His wife, Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), is a scrappy, once-poor Polish-American who became one of the first female civil engineers at Lockheed Martin. They have an unseen 40-ish son who’s gay, but she won’t admit it. Pablo Del Valle (Gabriel Ruiz) is from a rich aristocratic family in Chile but finds that means next to nothing in the U.S. He’s an ambitious lawyer eager to make partner in his firm. Tania, who is studying for a Ph.D. in identity politics, is from New Mexico and identifies as American, though others see only her Mexican heritage. Naturally, the Butleys are Republicans, and the Del Valles are Democrats.

The relationship between the couples is neighborly to start with, and when the Del Valles hesitantly say they want to replace the dilapidated chain-link fence separating the properties with a wooden one, the Butleys are only too happy, even if it means clipping Frank’s English ivy. The problem arises when the Del Valles have a survey done and discover that they’re entitled to two more feet of land, which would put the new fence right in the middle of Frank’s beloved flower border. The Butleys insist the fence has always been where the previous owner of the Del Valle house put it and refuse to give up what they consider rightfully theirs.

Zacarías stacks the deck with a totally contrived sense of urgency. The Del Valles have only six days to put in the new fence and whip their yard into shape because Pablo impulsively invited his whole law firm—60 people—over for a party the following Saturday and sees it as the key to his success with an important partner. But the judging of the garden competition is the very next day, so Frank couldn’t possibly repair the damage to his garden in time to win.

Were it not for this artificial time crunch, we have the sense the couples could have reached a compromise. Instead, the arguments become increasingly heated, prejudices are revealed, insults are hurled, what it means to be American is up for grabs, and everyone behaves badly, even as they are insisting that they’re really good people. The little acts of terror range from Tania pulling up Frank’s flowers to Virginia taking a chain saw to the oak tree.

The script is designed to push our PC buttons, and under Lyons’ direction, the ensemble plays almost everything for easy laughs. The opening night audience thought the play was hilarious, but I did not. Besides feeling manipulated, I found the amount of repetition tedious. The same tropes were reiterated over and over, only the ante on “you people” jokes was upped a little each time.

Then came the finale, a crisis guaranteed to bring everyone together, followed by the participants coming up with the solutions they could have hit upon much earlier—except that then there would be no play. I suspect that “Native Gardens” is supposed to be a sort of microcosm—or metaphor, or parable—about what the U.S. is and could be, but both the plot and the characters are just too annoying.