Playhouse Artistic Director must have an interest in property law. This season we already watched an old man’s farmland in jeopardy in MAD RIVER RISING and it wasn’t that long ago that we heard all about more urban property-squabbling in CLYBOURNE PARK. NATIVE GARDENS continues that theme but in hilarious fashion.
Sabina Zuniga Varela’s “Tania” is a very pregnant young urbanite, married to up and coming attorney (Gabriel Ruiz). They have moved in next to the stately, WASPs “Frank and Virginia Butley (John Lescault and Broadway star Karen Ziemba). Everyone gets along famously until a closer examination of the title paperwork in anticipation of building a new fence reveals a dispute over who owns what.
This is a brand new play from Karen Zacarias, who previously debuted THE BOOK CLUB PLAY in the Thompson Shelterhouse. I didn’t see that play but I wish I had now. NATIVE GARDENS is funny, smart, and a little sneaky.
Zacarias manages to sneak politics, class war, gender equality, and other themes into what on the surface may appear like an extended live sitcom. (For the record, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with sitcoms and I think we need a little more of this kind of levity in the theatre nowadays.)
Contrasted with the very intense and profound GROUNDED playing in Over the Rhine at Ensemble Theatre, NATIVE GARDENS might feel like fluff. But that’s an oversight; the themes in GARDENS are different, yes, and less specific but no less important.
And I don’t know about you but I like my social consciousness in more than one flavor.
All four members of this ensemble shine at various points in various ways. Varela keeps her Latin temper in check until just the right moments. Ruiz understands what its like to be a young minority in a world dominated by old white men — and his performance demonstrates that well. Lescault’s “Frank” is testerone-challenged, almost a caricature but not quite all the way. I thought he was perfect for the role and missed him when he wasn’t on stage. Ziemba is a bonafide star of Broadway and her very presence on the stage helped bring the script together.
The set, gorgeously designed by Joseph P. Tilford, immediately prepares us for the story. There’s character in the two houses and especially in the back-yard gardens. And as the play progresses the set becomes even more impressive with some smart, “how did they do that” details.
In any new play, there are some kinks to work out. Some dialogue felt repetitious, as if there was a need to fill some time. I would have liked to have learned more about the Butley’s gay son or heard more about Frank’s upbringing (he’s the ones history we know the least about) instead of some of the (very light) preaching about social issues. But those are minor issues. This is a fun night at the theatre, and Robison’s direction brings out the best in the script.
If Director Blake Robison does have a second-career interest in contract law I hope for our sake, that’s a long way off.
NATIVE GARDENS plays through February 21st in the Marx Theatre at the Playhouse in the Park. Tickets and more information can be found here.