Los Angeles Theater Review: NATIVE GARDENS (Pasadena Playhouse)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 11, 2018

in Theater-Los Angeles


Christian Barillas is adorably frazzled and enormously appealing in Native Gardens at the Pasadena Playhouse. He plays Pablo Del Valle, an ambitious lawyer born to wealth in Chile but disowned when he married a working-class Latina from New Mexico. In his youth he was “The Man,” surrounded by servants in a life of ease and privilege. Now he is “The Other,” new to his high-powered D.C. law firm, a new homeowner on the block, and about to be a new father. His intersectional identity is at the crux of Karen Zacarías’s amiable comedy about two couples whose fight over a property line between their backyards reveals assumptions and prejudices on both sides.

Jessica Meraz plays Tania Del Valle, Pablo’s eight-months pregnant wife, a doctoral candidate, who is a devotee of native, sustainable gardens. That she admires the beauty of plants some consider weeds is perhaps an outgrowth of her own sense of not always fitting in. That she can become strident and dismissive when her environmentalist pronouncements are challenged is a sign that she is more entitled than she imagines.

They have moved next door to Frank and Virginia Butley, an aging white couple with a wondrous, English-style garden — all manicured edges and pesticide perfection. They are warm and welcoming at first. “We brought Merlot and dark chocolate,” says Frances Fisher as Virginia, repeating the statement at various points in the action, giving it drawn out comic effect. Bruce Davison as Frank is anxious to have his garden in perfect shape for an upcoming garden competition.

In contrast to the politics of immigration and the couples’ own social status, the Butley’s garden is a riot of color and full of exotic transplants that harm the environment. The Del Valles plan a far quieter garden of indigenous harmony, soothing and helpful to the eco-system. A flurry of broad sitcom plot machinations follows, and the two couples are pitted against one another in a border dispute.

The garden fence that divides their yards isn’t a metaphor for Trump’s wall, it is the wall. But Zacarías isn’t interested in confirming stereotypes. Upon learning that Pablo is the new attorney at an illustrious firm, Virginia quips, “Oh, you must be the token.” The audience audibly gasps. But she intends it as a statement of camaraderie. As an engineer at Lockheed-Martin, hired decades before, when a woman engineer was something akin to a freak of nature, she was considered a token in her time. She urges him to never let the bastards get him down.

The couples have more in common than they think, on a variety of levels, but things get out of hand as the comic momentum escalates, and their dispute turns ugly. They doubt their own goodness as each has moments of being the bully as well as the bullied. In between scenes three gardeners move scenery, supply props, and indicate the passage of time — all in coordinated rhythm to music, with sly, knowing winks.

Native Gardens boasts an accomplished cast. Fisher is acerbic and funny, Davison makes Frank endearingly baffled and thin-skinned, and Meraz is by turns sharp and tender — truly sorry about the dispute, but unwilling to roll over. Barilla is a comic delight, believable as a hotshot lawyer who loses his cool, overcome by his own idiosyncratic sense of panic. As the gardeners, Julian Armaya,  Richard Biglia, and Bradley Roa II are cheerful and charming. The audience clearly loves them, welcoming them back at every scene change.

Director Jason Alexander is nothing if not knowing about how stage humor works. He guides the cast with a keen sense of pace, yet he doesn’t seem to hurry the actors or rush the laughs. Many in the audience greet scenic designer David Meyer’s naturalistic set of the two contrasting back yards with delight. For me, the massive collection of artificial flowers and greenery feels uncomfortably like a visit to Michael’s, though the mechanics of the shifting fence line are ingeniously carried out.

For a play about cultural conflict, Native Gardens is surprisingly gentle and sweet-spirited. Each of the four characters is capable of good will and reasonableness. But that’s part of why the play never truly takes flight. A plot device you see coming from miles away provides the path to resolution, and it feels unnecessary. We know these folks would have worked it all out in a spirit of neighborly cooperation long before Tania’s first labor pains hit. Nothing was ever really at stake.

photos by Jenny Graham

Native Gardens
Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena
Tues at 8 (Sep 11 & 25); Wed-Fri at 8;
Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 2
ends on September 30, 2018
for tickets, call 626.356.7529
or visit Pasadena Playhouse

{ 1 comment }

JM September 14, 2018 at 3:14 pm

You were waaay too kind. The trio of gardeners makes for a fun running gag but everything else in the show falls flat….I laughed out loud once and grinned twice. Not a very good average for a so-called comedy. The actors are giving it their best (and they are all very talented actors whose past performances have been terrific) but they are strangled by the weak script and substandard direction of Jason Alexander who seems to think it isn’t worth mining character development when you can simply have the actors yell and scream. Why the Playhouse hired him to direct is a mystery ….after all isn’t he the one that killed off the original REPRISE?

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