Let’s say you decide you can care about characters whose biggest problem in life is coming in second place in a gardening competition.
Let’s further say you don’t mind seeing the one-trillionth iteration of the dinner-with-the-boss trope, in which a husband invites important co-workers home for dinner, which comes as a whopping surprise to his wife, who has to scramble to get the place ready in time, as wheezing high jinks ensue.
But even you, charitable audience member, might quickly lose patience with TheatreWorks’ “Native Gardens,” seen Tuesday, Aug. 28, at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. In Karen Zacarías’ play, older white couple Frank (Jackson Davis) and Virginia (Amy Resnick) tell their new young Hispanic neighbors Pablo (Michael Evans Lopez) and Tania (Marlene Martinez) things like, “We thought you were Mexican.” (Neither is.) Or, “Your English is so good.” Or, “I would swear I was just speaking to two regular Americans.” The show asks us to believe that Pablo, a lawyer, and Tania, an anthropology doctoral candidate, would not only smilingly endure that barrage of racist microaggressions but also, in a later moment between just the two of them, jovially describe their white neighbors as “awesome,” sans any other comment.
We call it bull.
“Native Gardens”: Written by Karen Zacarías. Directed by Amy Gonzalez. Through Sept. 16. 85 minutes. $40-$100, subject to change. Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. 650-463-1960. www.theatreworks.org
The comedy centers on a property line dispute, artificially whisked to urgency by a barbecue Pablo has to throw this weekend if he wants to make partner at his law firm (because that’s how law firms make promotion decisions) and a gardening competition Frank wants to win on the same day. Soon, the question of where the fence ends and the flower beds can begin spreads to generational, socioeconomic, ethnic, ecological and political clashes. That’s a lot of ground for 23 inches of real estate to cover.
But in leaving no macrocosmic issue unturned, Zacarías occasionally unearths something profound about how privilege operates. Why didn’t Virginia and Frank ever notice that for years they’d been assuming ownership of land that wasn’t theirs? “We never needed to notice,” Virginia says.
But even when director Amy Gonzalez whips Zacarías’ dialogue into a screaming match, chase sequence or acorn-pelting fight, each new skirmish looks remarkably like the last in argumentation and structure. Timidity lurks behind the actors’ outward displays of fury, like they still haven’t decided whether to play it straight or satirically. And how could they flesh out characters asked to deliver strings of subtext-free declarations? “I think I’ve done something I might regret.” “I don’t want to let you down.” “I need to make partner.”
While the premise is ripe for possibility, and Zacarías makes clear that neither couple acts their best, she still lets her white characters off the hook awfully easily for making racist remarks and taking someone else’s property as their own. They’re rescued from their final showdown by a deus ex machina, and at the end of the play Zacarías has her characters tie up every loose end by narrating how the rest of their entire lives go, a bookend to a narrated prologue that might as well have began, “Once upon a time …” Frank tells us he wins best garden. Virginia gets her degree. Pablo makes partner. It’s all so hunky-dory, so easy to surmount every obstacle. It’s like the play’s wiping its hands of itself, brushing the dirt off after an evening of ineffectual gardening that didn’t even make a dent in the ground.
Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LilyJaniak
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