Neighbors have always been a touchy subject, which is why they make such an interesting entertainment dynamic. You can find them from sitcoms, to films, and currently on the stage of the Old Globe, playing through June 24th in NATIVE GARDENS.
In a delightfully funny and energetic show, this 90-minute comedy finds the older established neighbors at first welcoming and then feuding with their new, younger neighbors of color. The Del Valle’s are a married couple with a baby on the way; Pablo (Eddie Martinez) is a lawyer, and his wife Tania (Kimberli Flores) is a doctoral student. They are excited to have a house in an established neighborhood of D.C. and in his excitement Pablo invited all the partners in his firm over for a backyard event.
At first, when they tell their neighbors Virginia (Peri Gilpin) and Frank Butley (Mark Pinter) they want to replace the dingy old fence, the Butley’s are thrilled. Frank hates that it ruins the aesthetic of his very European and highly structured garden. In his opinion, the fence has kept him from winning the neighborhood gardening competition over the years.
Frank even bonds with Tania on the importance of gardening, though they differ on execution. When Tania describes her dream to put together a native garden including eco-friendly and area native plants Frank asks in disbelief “you’re planting weeds on purpose?”
Everything takes a turn for the worse when the Del Valle’s discover that their property line is actually 2 feet further out, and well into Frank’s pristine garden. They have to put in the new fence in time for Pablo’s work event, but Frank’s garden competition is also that weekend. Whatever will happen?
What happens is an escalation worthy of any sitcom neighbor dispute between opposites. The key difference in this piece is though the energy and the antics include many broad sitcom antics like name calling, throwing acorns at each other, and the threat of involving lawyers and government agencies (this is DC after all); the show plays with expectations and stereotypes in a delightful way.
As each couple grapples with how to protect what is theirs, each couple is forced to confront what their role is in all of this. Frank is affronted when he finds that “squatter’s rights” is something they could try to use as a defense, while Tania asks Pablo incredulously “We are now the man?”
The cast is terrific and everyone is sincere while still having the comic timing and elasticity to expand into the farce as it grows.
Gilpin is likeable as Virginia, a sweet, smart, and no nonsense woman engineer who keeps invoking her youth in Buffalo to counteract her righteous indignation of her privilege being challenged. Pinter is similarly amiable, as the retired government employee who is obsessed with his garden (he twirls with happiness when spraying pesticide in it) and his status in the neighborhood.
Martinez as Pablo is confident and comically tone deaf at times as he sometimes casts himself as a wounded causality to privilege who is reminded by his wife that he grew up incredibly wealthy and privileged himself, so he can’t really play that card. Flores as Tania is assertive, empathetic, and very funny as she tries to balance her desire for peace and respect for her elders with her persistent desire to getting this all resolved which leads to a marvelous argument with Virginia that ratchets up entertainingly by degrees.
Though they had no lines Alexander Guzman and Jose Balistrieri were audience favorites as the gardeners are hilarious and full of personality with their sharply executed choreographed surveying, plant removal, and fence demolition. Honestly, can we just root for whichever neighbor victory means that we’d get to see more of them?
The scenic design by Collette Pollard use the space in the White theatre well, and each side of the yard effectively articulates about their owners. Directed by Edward Torres, the energy and the timing use the set (and the tree in the middle) effectively to keep the play moving.
Like any good sitcom, especially those “very special episodes” of days past, these weighty issues are all thrown out and resolved at an improbable pace, but it is very entertaining and may even inspire you to reach out to your neighbors in good will (preferably without the acorn throwing).
NATIVE GARDENS is playing at The Old Globe through June 24th. For ticket and show time information go to www.theoldglobe.org