Cartoonish comedy is in the crabgrass in GALA’s ‘Native Gardens’


Like a garish lawn ornament amid manicured greenery, the overly broad comedy in GALA Hispanic Theatre’s world premiere “Jardín salvaje (Native Gardens)” mars the overall effect. Director Rebecca Aparicio’s production favors clowning and actorly mugging that detract from the script, a new, Spanish-language adaptation of local playwright Karen Zacarías’s popular comedy about feuding neighbors.

We first meet those neighbors stagily posed on scenic designer Grisele González’s realistic set, which depicts two backyard gardens in Northwest Washington. Young Mexican lawyer Pablo del Valle (a persuasive Víctor Salinas) and his New Mexican PhD-student wife, Tania (Alina Collins Maldonado), have moved in next door to Fabio and Virginia Bloch (Juan Luis Acevedo and Luz Nicolás), older homeowners respectively of Argentine and Spanish heritage.

When the neighbors discover that a property line has been misdrawn, their initial congeniality craters. Exacerbating the situation are horticulture strategies: Tania plans an environmentally conscious yard filled with native plants that pesticide-using Fabio considers weeds. The production boldfaces the contrast with stylized interludes that show Fabio romping around his garden to rock anthems, spray bottle in hand, amid disco-worthy colored light.

Such hyperbolic staging choices overshadow the nuances that Zacarías has written into this version of the play. The original English-language “Native Gardens,” which centered on a Latino couple and a White couple, premiered in Cincinnati in 2016 and went on to become one of the most-produced plays in America. It won fans with its comic treatment of the fierce emotions our homemaking choices can inspire — an evergreen topic. The play’s acknowledgment of how demographic differences can feed or muddy interpersonal tensions also reverberated strongly in the Trump era.

For the GALA production, performed with English surtitles, Zacarías has adapted her script, rewriting the profiles and backstories of the protagonists, making them all Spanish speakers, and teasing out the resulting implications, including insights about class. (Gustavo Ott authored the Spanish translation.) The revisions have profitably softened some of the original script’s more simplistic ironies.

The rewrite also casts light on complexity within Spanish-speaking communities. “Do you mean Latinos with skin lighter than you?” Virginia demands after Tania lobs the phrase “you people” at her. Tania, in view of her neighbor’s Iberian heritage, ripostes: “Virginia, you are not Latina.”

But it’s hard to appreciate the merits of the new script amid humor amped to cartoonishness, such as the wildly overindulged antics of surveyors and other bit players (Fabián Augustine, Janine Baumgardner, Edwin Bernal and Lenny Méndez). That said, when Virginia sneaks into her neighbors’ yard to pour coffee in their birdbath, it’s funny.

Audiences on opening night seemed to relish all the show’s comedy, with gales of laughter regularly erupting. But surely a subtler comic touch would have better served Zacarías’s revised script.

Jardín salvaje (Native Gardens) Written and adapted by Karen Zacarías, translated by Gustavo Ott. Directed by Rebecca Aparicio; lighting design, Alberto Segarra; projections, Deja Collins; sound, Justin Schmitz; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; properties, Chelsea Dean. In Spanish with English surtitles. About 2 hours and 10 minutes. Tickets: $25-$48. Through Feb. 26 at GALA Hispanic Theatre, 3333 14th St. NW. 202-234-7174.

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