Finding common ground

Neighbors spar, comedy blossoms in TheatreWorks' 'Native Gardens'

"Good fences," Robert Frost wrote, "make good neighbors." But in Karen Zacarias' domestic comedy "Native Gardens," currently staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, it's a fence between neighboring yards that sets two couples on a collision course toward a rapidly escalating turf war.

The fence in question, between the homes of the Butleys, who've lived in their historical, well-to-do Washington, D.C., neighborhood for decades, and the Del Valles, who've just moved in next door, at first seems to be a win-win. Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Michael Evans Lopez and Marlene Martinez) want to tear down their old chain-link fence and replace it with a more attractive, hipper wooden one. Frank and Virginia Butley (Jackson Davis and Amy Resnick) are overjoyed by this idea, as they're no fans of the metal eyesore and think a new improved fence could be what gets their garden the long-coveted first prize in the neighborhood's annual horticultural competition. But when the Del Valles check their property plans, they make a shocking discovery: Their property actually extends two feet past the existing fence, into some of Frank's beloved flower beds. When they attempt to claim what appears to be their rightful land, their friendly relationship quickly turns sour in a dramatic way.

Stanford-alum Zacarias has set up her two couples to be a study in contrasts, right down to their backyard styles. Consultant Frank and defense-contractor Virginia are, although not yet retired, heading toward senior citizenship, white, Republican and deeply entrenched in their community. Frank has dedicated much of his leisure time to cultivating his formal garden, keeping it groomed, "insecticided" and obsessively tended to near-perfection.

The Del Valles are young, hip and Latinx. He hails from Chile while she grew up in New Mexico. He's a rising-star attorney and she's an anthropology doctoral student, due with their first child in a matter of weeks. Well-versed in ecology, Tania has big plans to turn her new, neglected backyard into a native garden, supporting local plants and wildlife according to environmentally friendly principles. At the heart of it all is a large oak tree, which is Tania's pride and joy.

The Butleys are horrified by her plans to allow what they see as weeds flourish and tell her the tree needs to go (its acorns litter their neat and tidy lawn; they chopped theirs down years ago). In return, Tania is appalled at their water-gobbling, non-pollinator-helping garden and makes sure to lecture them about it. But still, they all strive to keep civil and pleasant until the issue with the disputed property line arises.

The Butleys soon reveal themselves to harbor appallingly antiquated and fairly racist ideas, which they are not shy about blurting out, sometimes with good intentions but always cringe-worthily. The Del Valles push back by showing bit of scornful ageism and Pablo's competitive, lawyerly side.

Though the characters in some ways come across as cartoonish, Zacarias is clever at subverting some expectations and cultural and gender stereotypes. Frank comes from patrician WASP stock but Virginia grew up the blue-collar daughter of Polish immigrants who worked her way up to becoming one of the few high-ranking women in her field (which she is always quick to point out). Tania, too, grew up working-class while Pablo was raised in high-class luxury in Chile and was disinherited when he chose to marry, as his family calls her, "the peasant."

As their feud heats up, the play heads into a farcical direction. It also puts the Del Valles in the unfamiliar position of becoming "The Man" while the conservative, privileged Butleys become the protesters invoking squatters' rights and defending "foreigners" (their non-native plants).

Directed by Amy Gonzalez, it's all funny, timely and fast-moving (no intermission), and a great choice from TheatreWorks for this moment and this audience. It would be very easy to imagine "Native Gardens" taking place in Palo Alto or nearby towns. Resnick's Virginia is deeply annoying and over-the-top while Davis as the odd, neurotic Frank is endearing. All four lead actors (plus three silent supporting ones) are fun to watch, even when the script gets a bit clunky now and then.

The set, by Andrea Bechert, is one of the most beautiful I've seen; each yard a thing of detailed wonder and full of realistic botanicals. Noah Marin's costume design provides Martinez's Tania with a series of gorgeous bohemian-style garb (she's the most memorable of the characters, clothing-wise) and lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt is effective.

Zacarias could have chosen to end the show in a number of comic ways, from the very dark to the very heartwarming. An argument could be made for either direction but, although it seems a bit over-idealistic/pat, I think she chose the right one, when (slight spoiler alert) in spite of their differences, the characters are forced to recognize their shared humanity. Common ground, perhaps, after all.

What: "Native Gardens."

Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.

When: Through Sept. 16; see online for performance schedule.

Cost: $35-$75.

Info: Go to TheatreWorks.

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