The pleasantries don’t last long between next-door neighbors in Ross Valley Players’ “Native Gardens.”
Conflicting deadlines and a shoddy chain-link fence provoke a week of guerrilla warfare between next-door neighbors in “Native Gardens,” at Ross Valley Players through June 11.
Photo by Robin Jackson
Pablo (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez) and Tania Del Valle (Jannely Calmell) star in “Native Gardens.”
In playwright Karen Zacarías’ elegantly scripted tale, conservative Washingtonians Frank and Virginia Butley (Steve Price and Ellen Brooks, respectively) meet new neighbors Tania and Pablo Del Valle, an introduction that gets off to a polite but awkward start when the Butleys assume, like many Americans do, that anyone with a Spanish surname is Mexican or an immigrant — in the Del Valles’ case, an only partially correct assumption. Ph.D. candidate Tania (Jannely Calmell) points out that she is New Mexican, that her family has been in the United States for more than 200 years and that her Ivy League-educated lawyer husband Pablo (Eric Esquivel-Gutierrez) is from the Chilean ruling class.
It’s a wickedly slow launch for what becomes a riotous comedic roller-coaster ride.
To celebrate the purchase of their new home, Pablo hopes to host a backyard barbecue for his law firm, and sets a date that conflicts with Frank’s appointment with the Potomac Horticultural Society, whose judges have consistently left him out of the winner’s circle in an annual garden competition.
A career bureaucrat, Frank frets enormously over his flowers — most of them non-native species — and uses prodigious quantities of pesticides and fertilizer to keep them looking perky, much to Tania’s dismay. She’s an advocate of organic gardening and native plants, including a massive oak tree in her backyard, a source of constant annoyance to the Butleys because it drops leaves and acorns on their pristine lawn.
Neighborly relations begin to sour when the Butleys suggest cutting down the oak, and get really thorny when Pablo discovers that the chain-link fence separating the adjoining backyards was installed 2 feet inside his property line. That means he’s within his rights to remove it and with it, a huge swath of Frank’s carefully cultivated flowers.
A controversy over what (and who) is “native” gets a clever extended examination in more-than-metaphorical dialog, as does the legal issue of “adverse possession” or “squatters’ rights,” not a notion that sits well with the staid Butleys.
Soon the neighbors are battling like children, throwing things in each others’ yards, and engaging in small-scale nighttime attacks. It’s always a laugh riot to see adults reduced to the level of kindergartners. The show’s four principal performers take it to the maximum.
Steve Price is among the most talented comic actors in the Bay Area, if not among the most talented anywhere. He excels at portraying obsessed neurotics. In that regard, he may be the equal of David Hyde Pierce of “Frasier” fame. Ellen Brooks is more restrained as Frank’s engineer wife, who deadpans her way through most of the action. Esquivel-Gutierrez shows similar restraint but fierce determination, including a willingness to take the dispute to court, while Calmell’s Tania vacillates between rationality and hysteria. Her Spanish is surprisingly limited except while cursing, when she displays impressive fluency.
Malcolm Rodgers’ gorgeous set (construction by Michael Walraven) couldn’t be more appropriate, depicting both the stately nature of the neighborhood and the differences between the adjoining properties — the Butley home having been meticulously maintained for decades, while the Del Valle home needs serious rehabilitation after years of rental to Georgetown students.
Whether physical or political, every detail is perfect in this production. Director Mary Ann Rodgers has extracted a superb performance from four tremendous talents. Zacarías’ script includes many subtle lead-ins to jokes with explosive payoffs. Rodgers gets the pacing just right.
“Native Gardens” is enormously satisfying and outrageously entertaining, one of those rare comedic enterprises that’s so rich and far-reaching that you’ll be laughing for days. It’s an absolute gem: a brilliant script brilliantly directed and brilliantly performed. We don’t have enough stars in our rating system to do it justice.
Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at email@example.com
IF YOU GO
What: “Native Gardens”
Where: The Barn Theatre, Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross
When: Through June 11; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $15 to $30
Information: 415-456-9555, RossValleyPlayers.com
Rating (out of five stars): ★★★★★