Written at the tail end of the Obama years and set against the upheaval in values that has occurred since, Karen Zacarias‘s comedy Native Gardens—about a caustic disagreement over a narrow strip of lucrative Beltway property smack-dab between the yards of two neighboring but not neighborly couples—is a play with deep implications, though perhaps not the ones she intended.
For Zacarias and Marti Lyons, directing for Victory Gardens, this is a border dispute. The middle-aged Butleys are white. Frank (the excellent Patrick Clear), a preening pink flamingo of a man armed with insecticide, sprays, cultivates, and primly manicures his formal English flower garden. He nurtures hopes of winning a long-coveted first-place prize from the Potomac Horticultural Society. New neighbors the Del Valles are young, upwardly mobile, and Latinx (Butleys: “Come again?“). Doctoral candidate Tania (Paloma Nozicka), whose pregnancy is almost to term, is planning an organic, native garden, the very idea of which induces Frank and his defense-contractor wife, Virginia (Janet Ulrich Brooks), to make it rain nervy faux pas at their first meeting. Frank, urging compromise, says he gets it—this nature stuff is all part of the Del Valles’ “rich Mexican heritage.” Yet when Tania and Pablo (Gabriel Ruiz), a rising star at his new law firm (and not Mexican but Chilean), discover that the survey of their land includes two feet of the Butleys’ backyard, a hell of hostility breaks loose.
The result, though occasionally funny, is a genuine display of ugliness on both sides, and everyone involved spends the play alternating between exuberance and contrition over how far off the deep end they’re prepared to go for these two feet of dirt.
Turning a suburban squabble over a property line into high art is for Zacarias a matter of making the land stand for something. By the end, the Butleys have become the frantic and unwitting imperialists who stole valuable property from the rightfully entitled if vaguely sharklike Del Valles. But the tactics, not the goal, are what interest me here. To me this genteel backyard death match sounds like the dying cry of an illusion, a last homage to the notion of compromise between antagonistic parties that characterized the Obama era. In 2017, hopes extinguished, we are back in a world where people want different, irreconcilable things. Frank movingly and credibly loves his flowers. Tania has a head full of the latest jargon in identity politics to spew at uninterested and intractable Virginia. Pablo, in a candid moment, admits he doesn’t see why his happiness should hinge on “some old people we don’t even know.” Nobody wants to give an inch. It’s terrifying. The happy ending, which involves a fence, feels fake now. v