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Native Gardens

Image: Pin Lim

At 7:29 on a recent evening, a bespectacled theater patron leaned over to make conversation with the stranger on her left.

“We’ve subscribed to all of them over the years. But we always come back to Main Street Theater,” said the woman with a smile. The stranger nodded and smiled back. “We were members at the Alley a long time, but they just got too—”

We didn’t catch the last word, the woman’s voice having dropped to a whisper.

“Too what?” asked the stranger, who hadn’t heard either. We leaned in close.

“Too… negative,” replied the woman.

And with that, the lights dimmed, talk ceased, and an evening’s performance of Native Gardens commenced, a play that for most of its 90 minutes wrestles with any number of powder keg -isms—racism, sexism, classism, ageism—before ultimately declaring, with thunderous deux ex machina force, that everything is going to be OK.

Like all talented purveyors of serious theater in this town, Main Street is at its best when smashing pieties and challenging its audiences’ deepest, most cherished beliefs. But what do you do when your audience doesn’t want to be challenged? What if, instead, they want the opposite? Seen through the prism of this unenviable dilemma, the company’s mounting of Native Gardens appears to have been a compromise of sorts—an unsatisfactory one for all concerned. Like Karen Zacarías’ play, which is neither sharp enough to take on hot-button issues with originality, nor funny enough to skewer them deliciously, Main Street’s production fails to meet both its own and its audience’s demands.  

In essence, Native Gardens is a comedy about a property line dispute, a trope that has proved successful often enough in the annals of theater. Indeed, it has proved so successful, you might wonder why Zacarías would still employ it. On one side are Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Bryan Kaplun and Briana J. Resa), a young married couple expecting their first child, he a Chilean-born lawyer, she an American-born Latina pursuing a PhD in anthropology. 

At rise, they have just moved into a townhouse in an unspecified D.C. suburb, whereupon the couple meet their neighbors Frank and Virginia Butley (Jim Salners and Anne Quackenbush), with whom they share mammalian status and little else. The Butleys are elderly (whenceforth the ageism), old-fashioned (sexism), white (racism), and wealthy (classism). Then there’s the fact that Pablo is desperate to become the first Latino partner at his firm (tokenism), Virginia hates the tree in the Del Valles’ yard (arborism?), while Tania prefers an insecticide-free garden of native plants to a backyard full of RoundUp-enabled hydrangeas and tulips (liberalism, Monsanto-ism), and Frank’s only wish in life is to win a garden-of-the-month competition (inconsequentialism).

A set-up like this could fuel the conflicts of a dozen plays, but Zacarías isn’t done. Moving the fence, we hear, would ruin Frank’s chances at a horticultural trophy—the yards are being judged this weekend—and keeping it put would render Pablo’s yard less impressive, which in turn might jeopardize his chances of a promotion when his boss comes over for a barbecue scheduled for, you guessed it—this weekend.

Given the amount and variety of weaponry on display, you might think the ensuing battle (on a fine set by Claire A. “Jac” Jones) would climax with beheadings, vivisection and the complete obliteration of both couples, but Zacarías is an optimist. Ninety intermission-less minutes later, all has ended happily, a result that defies the laws of physics, much less drama. The road from here to there is studded with insults, and there are some hilarious ones, to be sure. But having plenty to fight about isn’t the same as having a compelling reason to fight, and finally the prospect of one or another well-off couples losing two feet to their backyard just isn’t enough to support the larger questions of identity and ownership the writer wants to explore.

In short, the lack of an arc—to the play and its characters—makes it hard for the actors to modulate, which is a polite way of saying that they are forced to scream from start to finish, something doubly off-putting in Main Street Theater’s intimate space. Still, the simmering viciousness of Quackenbush’s Virginia strikes the right tone, while Resa’s Tania inner fight—to resist the same intolerance she’s accused the Butleys of—crackles with requisite tension.

In the end, however, she and the rest of the company are overwhelmed by a larger fight, namely with a script marred by clunky exposition (“I’ve been an engineer at Lockheed so long I have my own bathroom,” explains Virginia), over-explanation and a playwright less concerned with narrative logic than sending an audience smiling into the night.

Then again, like the Alley, perhaps I’m being too negative?  

Through June 11. Tickets from $39. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-6706. 

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