Chicago Theater Review: NATIVE GARDENS (Victory Gardens Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on June 10, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


There’s a cable series on the Investigation Discovery channel called Fear Thy Neighbor: It recreates real-life tragedies as tiny incidents explode into ugly violence between tenants or homeowners, across the hall or across the street. Unlike Native Gardens, it doesn’t end well.

Creator of Goodman Theatre’s Mariela in the Desert and Destiny of Desire, Karen Zacharias escalates the boundary dispute of four neighbors into a border war. Their cross-cultural, fight-or-flight conflict becomes a blatant microcosm of a divided nation: Accusations of unearned entitlement and unquestioned privilege, ageism, sexism, and racism, detonate a small-scale civil war, white versus brown rather than blue against gray. In this Chicago premiere by Victory Gardens Theater, broadly staged by Marti Lyons, Zacharias’ sociological catfight is played more for sitcom-simple laughs than shocks of recognition.

Williams Boles’ schizoid set tells the tensions before it starts: We see two perilously unlike backyards and façades of D.C. residences (originally built in 1908 but having taken very different paths). On the left is the manicured lawn, topiary bushes, English ivy, and show garden of the white-bread Butleys, archetypal G.O.P. gentry. These are Virginia Butley (Janet Ulrich Brooks), a Polish-American civil engineer at Lockheed Martin with a gay son, and her husband Frank (Patrick Clear), a bureaucrat with the General Services Administration. WASP-y and proudly patrician, Frank hopes to win the blue ribbon in a landscaping competition sponsored by the Potomac Horticultural Society. They don’t think they’re snooty or superior. (We see different.)

On the right is a lawn-less property gone to seed and weed, with a huge oak tree shading on the Butleys’ domain. It’s the new home of the “fish out of water” Del Valle familia. The very pregnant Tania (Paloma Nozicka) is a Ph.D. candidate in identity politics, as Mexican as you get when you hail from New Mexico. An unashamed liberal, Tania wants to transform this vacant lot into a “native garden” with only “mid-Atlantic” plants and wildflowers natural to the ecosystem—none of the pesticides and exotic species of her gringo neighbors. Her husband Pablo (Gabriel Ruiz), an ambitious attorney hoping to make partner, wants to use the yard for a huge barbecue for the entire law establishment. Of course, his Saturday shindig comes just when Frank will have his precious parterres judged by fellow-landed aristocrats from horsey Virginia.

Good fences may make good neighbors, as Robert Frost said (the play leaves out his ominous line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”). Split and sundered by age, origin, and temperament, these contrasted couples can’t agree on the wooden paling meant to replace the previous chain-link fence—and especially where it should go. Fueled by personality differences, differing indigenous expectations, and ornery human nature, the squabble really takes off when Tania discovers the property lines were misdrawn. She and Pablo own a two-foot easement that just happens to contain Frank’s favorite hydrangeas, peonies and chrysanthemums. It’s supposedly worth $15,000, which suddenly triggers venal Pablo’s protectionist impulses. Add to this inequity Virginia’s mean disparagement of the del Valles’ dreams and you’ve got a mini-America circa 2017.

Given the “you people” stereotypes of flowers versus weeds (specifically, condescending “settlers” versus arriviste “intruders”), this metastasizing dispute couldn’t be more predictable. A surveyor arrives, then Hispanic landscapers, and finally a “desist work” order. Just when you think that the wives, more assimilationist than their stubborn husbands, might exercise a moderating influence, they curdle into territorial and tribal shrews. The play’s low point comes when, having given up on employing “squatter’s rights” to protect her holdings, a crazed Virginia (what’s in a name?) tries to chop down the giant oak. A crisis is now a cartoon. The flowers are fragrant, the fools are flagrant.

Native Garden isn’t so much about truth as PC button-pushing. But despite its utter lack of surprises, a few moments transcend farce: Of course, turnabout is not fair play when the del Valles seem as arrogantly authoritarian as the patronizing, stuffed-shirt Butleys. There’s an interesting debate about whether the jingoistic term “Americans” applies to anyone outside the United States. A few one-liners land well. But too often Zacharias’ one-act is played for easy laughs. Four ultra-competent Chicago artists seize on rather than back away from the script’s crude caricatures and pandering polarities.

Worst of all is how gutless this 90-minute 3-D sitcom becomes by its co-opted end. The feuding families’ friction, we’re told in an easy epilogue, is solved by a few wise compromises. Naturally, these could have been made earlier—but then we wouldn’t have a contrived cultural comedy. In effect, the audience is punished for believing this buffoonery. Zacharias un-boldly abandons all the ugly premises and predictions from this war between ethnic extremes. Silly us for taking it seriously.

photos by Liz Lauren

Native Gardens
Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave
Tues-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on July 2, 2017
for tickets, call 773.871.3000 or visit Victory Gardens

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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