Weeds. So many weeds.
The elder white, Republican couple Virginia and Frank do their best to connect to their new, young Latin Democrat neighbors Tania and Pablo. Yet a conversation broached between the two households goes from civil to awkward to uncomfortable, ultimately leading to a battle royale that includes pesticides and chainsaws.
In the City Lights Theater Company production of “Native Gardens,” penned by prolific and oft-produced playwright Karen Zacarías and directed with fluidity by Melinda Marks, there are issues aplenty presented with humor, precision and outright annoyance.
Tania (Jessica Osegueda) is experiencing plenty of stress in her new home, which includes being quite pregnant as well as a doctoral candidate. Her husband Pablo (Andre Leben) is a highly motivated attorney, searching for a way to lock down a partnership at his firm. He determines that a big barbecue to showcase their new abode could do the trick. This goes over like a lead balloon for Tania, who is firmly ensconced in fixer-upper vibes and isn’t looking to host anything. However, with no desire to shut down Pablo’s dreams, the outside of the house is deemed suitable for the critical gathering. As a courtesy, a visit to the new next-door neighbors’ pristine property to alert them to the event is an appropriate next step.
That initial meetup between Frank (Kyle Smith) and Virginia (Josie Burgin Lawson) is friendly yet awkward as the established household drops the neighborhood bona fides on the young professional couple, which includes lots of entrenched conservative neighbors who served both Bush presidencies.
The metaphor du jour that ties the plots and the neighbors together is a garden. It’s Frank’s pièce de résistance, a prized possession that has garnered him a slew of honorable mentions, but this could be the year the big prize finally recognizes his fastidious care, the competition coming on the same day as the barbecue. His garden is English-inspired — ivy, geraniums, insecticide and Miracle-Gro rule the day. But Tania dreams of a native garden on her smaller side of the property — Carolina silverbell and mulberry are more her vibe. “Low-maintenance greenery that’s high output and low-impact,” she proudly states.
Frank has another name for this native nonsense — weeds.
While Frank and Tania probably have more in common than they let on due to their mutual green thumbs, the real conflict is set in motion early, leading to a full-blown war. Frank and Virginia’s first meetup with their young neighbors is cringey in all sorts of ways. According to Frank, Tania’s desire to garden might be due to her being Mexican and having an innate connection to the earth. Tania firmly reminds Frank that New Mexico, where she hails from, is in the United States and she knows very little about old Mexico. Pablo has a better excuse for his lack of Mexico knowledge — he’s Chilean.
The threat that Tania and Pablo represent is financial, as they discover later — according to surveyors, they own some of the land where Frank’s pristine garden lives. An attempt to reclaim that land gets ugly, leading to some downright racist moments. A peaceful resolution is nothing more than a chimeric dream.
The production does lots of good despite occasional technical struggles, namely sound execution that often drowned out the beginning of scenes. It’s led by a cast that is balanced in its delivery of humor and discomfort. Osegueda’s sharp-as-a-tack Tania is measured and calculated, playing a level-headed pragmatist that isn’t immune from using pointed Spanish when necessary. Leben articulates the challenges of a Latin professional succinctly occupying a multitude of white spaces, while remaining loyal to his family and himself.
As Frank, Smith is tasked with carrying the humor card, forcing him into a bit of a different acting style. Frank’s petulance, which includes trudging heavily, is both funny and melancholy as we witness his grief for losing something he loves immensely. And Lawson was downright scary and supremely effective, playing a woman whose racism flowed downhill with revolting ease.
The play’s conclusion is somewhat easier to accept because the script’s style is less real while striving for ideals. In the 90-minute script however, it’s still challenging to get past what feels like 80 minutes of truth only to present a kumbaya denouement in the last 10.
If we learn one thing from “Native Gardens,” it may be that racism and neighbor battles are as ugly as actual weeds. Only when those weeds are acknowledged and dealt with, the garden can finally thrive.
David John Chávez is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association. Twitter @davidjchavez.
By Karen Zacarias, presented by City Lights Theater Company
Through: Dec. 19
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
COVID precautions: Proof of vaccination required, masks must be worn in the theater
Tickets: $45-$47; 408-295-4200, cltc.org