A young couple buys a fixer-upper in an older affluent neighborhood only to discover a fence, hastily installed by the previous owner, shortchanges their property line by two feet. Breaking the news to their neighbors – who, unaware of the misalignment, have for years invested time, money and ego into landscaping the disputed dirt – quickly leads to an all-out border war with wheelbarrows of laughs in “Native Gardens,” a West Coast premiere at the Old Globe.
The story starts on an amicable note as neighborhood newbies Pablo Del Valle (Eddie Martinez), an attorney at a prestigious D.C. law firm, and his wife Tania (Kimberli Flores), a scholar working on a doctorate in sociology who is also nine months pregnant, are entertained in the manicured backyard of Frank Butley (the ever-engaging Mark Pinter), a retired government employee, and wife Virginia (Peri Gilpin, best known for her role as Roz Doyle in “Frasier”), a defense contractor/engineer who, despite her career success, remains defensive about her blue-collar roots.
The first signs of friction appear when Tania enthusiastically describes her plans to turn what is currently the barren Del Valle backyard into an eco-friendly, native-plant garden.
“You’re planting weeds on purpose?” asks an incredulous Frank, who is just days away from having his showcase garden judged in a highly competitive local gardening contest.
A subsequent review of mortgage documents and confirmation by surveyors establish the Del Valle’s right to the strip of coveted land. “I love the law!” says a triumphant Pablo.
Presented with the facts, the Butleys make an equally compelling case that their decade of
unchallenged care for the disputed strip of soil constitutes “adverse possession” (blueblood Frank simply can’t bring himself to use the common term “squatter’s rights”).
“I hate the law!” says a dejected Pablo.
In crafting the story, playwright Karen Zacarías adroitly weaves in issues of racism, classism, sexism and ageism. Setting the story near the nation’s capital allows for an additional overlay of topical political references and the culture wars. What prevents the story from becoming a roller coaster without brakes is comic relief within this comedy by strategically introduced scenes mesmerizingly performed by the actors in slow motion that reveal inner hostilities, the pouring of cold coffee on innocent plants, and various other forms of nose thumbing. These interludes could not have been pulled off without the mood-changing magic of lighting designer Amanda Zieve and sound designer Mikhail Fiksel.
Also a marvel are stone-faced, sunglass-wearing, silent gardeners (played by Jose Balistrieri and Alexander Guzman) who are as riveting as synchronized swimmers as they tango dance with yard rakes and, right before your eyes, dismantle a lengthy chain-link fence bisecting the stage and pull a small forest of shrubbery to create a demilitarized zone between scenic designer Collette Pollard’s juxtaposed embattled yards.
High marks to director Edward Torres for assembling a whip-sharp cast and propelling the story hilariously along with the precision of a Swiss-made watch.
By Lynne Friedmann