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Somewhere in the depths of Ward 3, the two couples in playwright Karen Zacarias’ Native Gardens debate the fate of their properties. Specifically, they fight over the merits of peonies and oak trees, English ivy and tea roses, and which plants are best suited for a mid-Atlantic environment. Compared with the problems other District residents face, the problems of these four individuals seem insignificant. “White people problems,” one might say. But the play isn’t really about gardens. The gardens stand in for a bigger problem: what happens when the neighborhood occasionally referred to as “Upper Caucasia” starts to look less Caucasian.
On one side of the acrimonious fence that divides the couples reside Frank and Virginia Butley (Steve Hendrickson and Sally Wingert), a retired bureaucrat and defense contractor, respectively, who’ve lived in the neighborhood for decades. On the other side, fixing up a run-down house previously rented by American University students, live Pablo and Tania Del Valle (Dan Domingues and Jacqueline Correa). He’s an associate at a downtown law firm, and she’s finishing graduate school and preparing to give birth to their first child. When Pablo invites everyone in his firm over for a barbecue, he and Tania decide to make the backyard look nicer by replacing the old fence between the two yards. A quick review of the property boundaries leads to the evening’s central conflict.
The couples gather over a bottle of wine to discuss where the fence will go, but things become fraught and they begin to fight. Zacarias’ cutting dialogue briefly reminds audiences of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for the K Street set. The Butleys lament their insignificance and wildly gesticulate with their wine glasses while the Del Valles watch with a mix of fascination and horror. Frank, for example, asks Tania, a native New Mexican, about life south of the border when in fact, her fair-skinned Chilean husband is the immigrant, and both of the Butleys praise both Presidents Bush. (It’s easy to imagine the fictional older couple participating in the real-life debate over the Ward 3 homeless shelter.) This probing of new and old D.C. residents feels, for a moment, refreshing.
Soon enough, however, the comedy reverts back to its shallow observation of local social customs. Zacarias has thrown in enough topical jokes to keep Arena Stage subscribers laughing regularly. When Pablo and Tania find out Frank’s reference to “The Agency” means the GSA, not the CIA, the audience roars. They do the same during an extended riff on current and former Washington Post slogans—patrons might as well show up wearing “Democracy Dies in Darkness” t-shirts. Zacarias, who lives in the District with her family, proves she knows the region well and Arena’s hyper-literate audiences pick up on nearly every joke. What’s less clear is how these jokes—and the show as a whole—landed in Minneapolis and Cincinnati, where it played previously.
The performers, all making their Arena Stage debuts, do their best with material that’s pointed and political in one moment and tiredly trite the next. While they fall victim to cliched gesturing every once in awhile, they get the appeal of performing for a hometown crowd and relax into their roles. The supplemental ensemble members, who don’t speak but appear in select scenes as construction workers and babysitters, add extra enthusiasm.
Though the play, running a brisk 90 minutes, zips by, it misses a chance to thoroughly assess the assumptions the Butleys and the Del Valles make about each other. No one actively questions the privileges that brought them west of Rock Creek Park, but hey, at least the conflict gets wrapped up in a predictable package in the final 10 minutes. Laugh all you want at this neighborhood listserv debate distilled for the stage. Just don’t expect a deeper analysis of current issues affecting urban homeowners.
At Arena Stage to Oct. 22. 1101 6th St. SW. $41–$101. (202) 554-9066. arenastage.org.