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There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org