Theater / Film

Review: Inventive ‘Native Gardens’ seeds summer laughs at GableStage

Written By Christine Dolen
June 14, 2023 at 4:05 PM

Kevin Cruz as Pablo Del Valle and Diana Garle as his wife Tania make a surprising discovery about their property line in GableStage’s “Native Gardens” on stage through Sunday, July 16. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Making an inference from the new show at GableStage, playwright Karen Zacarías must know what it’s like to have challenging neighbors.

Her “Native Gardens” touches on a multiplicity of subjects, including the work-life challenges women face, acceptance of an offspring’s sexual orientation, prejudice both subconscious and overt.  But Zacarías absolutely nails what happens when the heretofore pleasant folks next door turn nasty.

Closing out producing artistic director Bari Newport’s second season at GableStage in Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel, “Native Gardens” is just what the theater doctor ordered as an antidote to the flow of apocalyptic news. The play isn’t theater of the absurd, but it’s absurdly hilarious.

Thanks to the inventive, joyful touch of director Victoria Collado and a killer cast of four, “Native Gardens” is a finely calibrated romp through the fast-disintegrating relationship of two couples who call an historic Washington D.C. neighborhood home.

The longtime residents are baby boomers Frank Butley (David Kwiat) and his wife Virginia (Barbara Sloan). He works for the government, mysteriously calling his employer “the agency,” while she’s an engineer at Lockheed Martin and an all-around dynamo.  Frank’s true passion is his lovingly tended, flower-filled garden, and he’s intently focused on beating the neighbor who always defeats him in the Potomac Horticultural Society’s yearly competition.

From left, David Kwiat, Diana Garle, Kevin Cruz and Barbara Sloan share a friendly moment before going to war in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

New to the house next door are millennials Pablo Del Valle (Kevin Cruz), an attorney who grew up in a wealthy Chilean family, and his wife Tania (Diana Garle), a New Mexico-born Ph.D. candidate whose first baby is due in a mere five weeks. Their home is in obvious need of TLC, their “garden” – currently home to an old oak tree, scattered leaves and acorns, a few paltry plants and a sad little gnome statue – even more so.

Pretty quickly (the play is only 90 minutes, sans intermission), the Butleys and Del Valles find themselves in a pickle.

Pablo – well aware of his status as the only Latinx attorney at what he calls an “intensely American” law firm, ambitiously aspiring to a future partnership – winds up inviting the entire office over for a Saturday get-together.  In a mere six days. Disbelieving Tania, who is preparing to defend her doctoral dissertation, needing to get the new place in order and (oh yes) have a baby, nonetheless rallies and suggests a backyard barbecue.

Frank’s competition, as it turns out, is the day after the barbecue. Tania believes she can quickly create a starter version of her dream garden, one filled with native plants and maintained without the use of pesticides.  But she’d really love to replace the pitiful chain-link fence between the two backyards with a more private wooden one.

Over getting-to-know-you drinks, the younger couple floats the fence idea, and Frank loves it – until Tania examines the plat map of her backyard and discovers that the Del Valles’ property actually extends two feet beyond the chain link fence.

Thus begins the next-door neighbor equivalent of World War III, with a lot more laughs.

David Kwiat, Barbara Sloan and Diana Garle find things are turning ugly in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Zacarías’s script is funny throughout, interspersing quirky silent vignettes between the scenes and growing ever more (amusingly) ridiculous.

As director, Collado is extravagantly imaginative and surgically precise.  Working with the ever-wonderful sound designer Matt Corey, she gets extra laughs with bridging music – the deceptively innocent “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” from “Sesame Street,” the theme song from “Jaws” when a miniature piece of wood fencing bobs up and down between the two houses.

Collado and the cast make key lines sting, as ugly biases surface in casual conversation.  Her comedic touch collaborating with her actors is priceless too, as when Frank, alone in his yard, does a bit of ballet as he dispenses pesticide in precisely timed squirts.

David Kwiat as Frank in GableStage’s “Native Gardens” prepares to blast his garden with pesticide. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Kwiat and Sloan, a real-life couple, are an acting dream team as the Butleys. His Frank is a man of unbridled enthusiasms and a quicksilver temper; when a remark hits him especially hard, he makes a sound that’s a cross between a roar and a moan, as if he’d been gutted.  Sloan is masterful at playing sociability with a strong undercurrent of brittleness.  Her Virginia can be manically ruthless, too: When she goes for her chainsaw, watch out.

Cruz, who has been building his professional career since graduating from Miami’s New World School of the Arts just over a year ago, is a tall, striking leading man who persuasively conveys Pablo’s insecurities as well as his ambitions.

Increasingly active in film and television in both Miami and Los Angeles, Garle has come back to the theater and GableStage without missing a beat. Though she wears a faux pregnancy belly as Tania, Garle’s glow comes from within (well, maybe with a little assist from lighting designer Tony Galaska).  She’s an adroit comedienne who flawlessly navigates Tania’s wide-ranging emotions. Whether acting or reacting, Garle is a magnetic performer.

The look of GableStage’s “Native Gardens” is deliberately and delightfully cartoonish, featuring a pair of similar small-scale houses, two vastly different backyards and a sky dotted with puffy painted clouds. Frank J. Oliva, the season’s set designer, has delivered a playful environment in synch with the script’s style and Collado’s approach.

David Kwiat and Diana Garle discuss their differing garden philosophies in GableStage’s “Native Gardens.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Plant designer/set dresser Victoria Murawski has surrounded the Butleys’ backyard with an abundance of colorful flowers (silk would have been better than plastic, though), and prop designer/set dresser Katie Ellison has effectively underscored the status of the two couples (the Butleys have been around forever and have money; the Del Valles don’t).  Likewise, costume designer Camilla Haith says plenty about Virginia (chic attire and glittering necklaces) and Tania (a still-stylish  millennial in comfortable pregnant-lady clothes).

“Native Gardens” has plenty of serious content threaded throughout, little issue-oriented land mines about racism, classicism, ageism and more.  Yet because those topics are so expertly woven into a disarming piece that keeps the audience laughing, it may just be that theatergoers will take inventory of their own prejudices. As Virginia says in the play, “Just because you don’t like what you hear doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen!”

WHAT: “Native Gardens” by Karen Zacarías

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN: 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional matinees July 7 and July 15), through July 16 (streaming version available during regular performances June 16-July 16)

COST: $40-$70 (streaming ticket $27)

INFORMATION:  305-445-1119 or gablestage.org.

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