“If people want hopelessness, they just have to turn on the news. Reaffirming the terribleness of humanity is not very interesting to me.” This is a quote from a Journal News interview given by Karen Zacarias, one of the most produced Latina playwrights in the United States. It’s not a blindside view Zacarias was embracing, but rather the idea that a writer can address the serious and even unappealing aspects of mankind without losing optimism or even humor.
It’s with this entertain-rather-than-dispirit brushstroke, then, that we lean into her 2016 play, Native Gardens, a story of culture clash and the fireworks that follow.
Pablo, a lawyer originally from Chile, and his doctoral-candidate, pregnant wife, Tania (a Latina from New Mexico), have just purchased a dream fixer-upper in a predominantly white neighborhood. Their next-door neighbors, longtime residents Frank and Virginia, are welcoming to the new couple at first, even if they seem a little, um, racist. Well, not racist exactly, but they do assume the young couple is from Mexico, because they “look” Mexican and Pablo has a Spanish accent. And they do wonder if the indigenous garden Tania wants to plant (a garden that the older couple dismisses as a bunch of weeds compared to their traditional English garden) is rooted in some kind of "your people" ethnic thing.
Pablo and Tania shrug it off as just harmless chatter. After all, Frank and Virginia have welcomed them to the neighborhood with wine and chocolate. They’ve even been super-supportive of Pablo and Tania’s decision to upgrade a cruddy old chain-link fence in their backyard. But soon enough, tensions are stoked following accusations about creeping property lines and what land belongs to whom. Tensions that boil over into a battle of taste, entitlement and even flowers and foliage as the characters behave badly in ways they never thought they would.
Let’s revisit the above sentence once again…namely, “the characters behave badly in ways they never thought they would.” Sound like a familiar setup? Do visions of the Tony- and Olivier-winning 2009 bad manners comedy, God of Carnage, come to mind? Substitute a couple’s fight over their kids for a tiff about property lines and gardens and you pretty much have the entire conceit of Native Gardens. Only in this case, Zacarias layers a light dusting of racial politics on the narrative, ostensibly to give it more gravitas.
Yes, there are some cringeworthy moments where prejudices bubble to the surface in the couples’ fight. But Zacarias makes these moments more punch line than profound, more extra frosting than the cake itself. So ultimately superfluous are the racial elements in the farcically comedic narrative that we come to realize the show would have worked just as well had the couples all been of the same race. If worked well meant that the play was anything more than a mildly amusing confection.
Whereas God of Carnage shocked us with the character’s hilariously atrocious misbehavior, Native Gardens' biggest gasp is an acorn lightly tossed at a pregnant woman’s back and the trampling of some hydrangeas. Brandon Weinbrenner’s overly broad direction and Zacarias’s sitcommy, Hollywood-neat writing ensures that Native Gardens suffers under its own cuteness.
Despite having to muddle through cliché and trite lines like “it’s a travesty of justice” and “all we are saying is give plants a chance,” the cast does their best to overcome the characters’ commonplace comedic muchness. Most successful is Briana J. Resa as Tania, delivering the show’s most natural and grounded performance. When Tania loses her cool and swears in Spanish at Victoria, we believe her motivations. When she backs down and apologizes, we see her compassionate side. As Frank and Virginia, Jim Salners and Anne Quackenbush both handle their outrage and entitlement well despite being thinly drawn caricatures. Bryan Kaplun struggles the most as Pablo, getting pulled by the undertow of Zacarias’s unnatural, sloganizing dialogue and Weinbrenner’s direction, which can’t seem to draw any lawyerly energy from him or chemistry with his wife, Tania.
The disappointment in the show, however, doesn’t extend to the set design, which is a glorious transformation of the Main Street Theater space. Inhabiting almost the entirety of the available black-box floor, Claire A. “Jac” Jones’s vision of the two neighboring houses’ back decks and yards is a wonder. Replete with immaculate grass, yellow tulips, purple hydrangeas and elegant gray stone benches, Frank and Virginia’s backyard is a picture right out of Better Homes and Gardens. Tania and Pablo’s yard, on the other hand, is a wasteland of patchy grass, a teetering birdbath and an oak tree that threatens to overtake both yard and house. The fence dividing the properties, in all its forms, allows us to see through to the other yard.
With seating on three sides of the enormous set, the audience perspective changes depending on where the audience sits. Some of us reside in Tania and Pablo’s backyard, others in Frank and Victoria’s, and a smaller lot have a view to both equally. As visually intriguing as any position would be, one can’t help but wonder what more could have been gleaned from the play had the audience been allowed to switch sides at some point. To reside in the other couple’s backyard and perhaps feel closer to them as a result. But at 90-plus minutes with no break, this was merely a thought, not an option.
Zacarias has said of Native Gardens that she doesn’t want to tell us who to root for but rather have our sensibilities switch back and forth between the two couples as they fight it out. Problem is, her writing pretty much assures us that we side with Pablo and Tania right from the start and never really weaken in our allegiance.
The young couple may not be perfect, but they’re right both legally and sensibly in their arguments. And once again, this plot point isn’t dependent on the racial element of the show. Our sympathies have little to do with any kind of prejudicial injustice done to them. It’s just common sense that they’re in the right. Perhaps had Frank and Virginia been made more likable or emotionally available, we would have seen things in grayer shades. But when we are given only neon colors, it’s impossible to appreciate nuance.
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If your desire is for a morality play that really does vex ideas of right and wrong, you’d be wise instead to see either Lobby Hero or Luna Gale, both on Houston stages at present. These are both terrific shows that turn our loyalties back and forth and make us question not only the characters we see, but our own ethical compass as well.
However, if light entertainment with just a hint of deeper issues is all you can handle at present, then this may be the show for you. Just don’t kid yourself afterward that you’ve seen some kind of meaningful racial reckoning.
Native Gardens continues through June 11 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times. For tickets, call 713-524-6706 or visit mainstreettheater.com. $36-$45.