The Old Globe comedy “Native Gardens” showcases some of the most conspicuous botanically centered aggression since that overgrown blossom started snacking on the help in “Little Shop of Horrors.”
As cuttingly funny and of-the-moment as the Karen Zacarías play can be, its style of humor is likewise a little unhinged at times: As staged in its West Coast premiere at the Globe, the thing feels hopped-up on fertilizer fumes and hell-bent for slapstick-y laughs.
That frenetic feel at times overshadows Zacarías’ ideas, which are considerable and woven cleverly into this 90-minute, intermission-free piece.
The play pivots on a property feud — or, as one character provocatively describes it, a “border dispute.” It’s a dustup that pits an older white couple against their new neighbors of color in an upscale neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
But the conflicts between the two pairs, as things develop, don’t cleave along cliched or easily defined lines of race, class and social status.
Neighborhood newcomer Pablo Del Valle (Eddie Martinez) is an up-and-coming lawyer born into wealth in Chile; his wife, Tania (Kimberli Flores) is a doctoral student of Mexican ancestry whose family settled in New Mexico before it was part of the United States.
Their counterparts are Virginia Butley (Peri Gilpin of longtime TV “Frasier” fame), a seeming paragon of privileged D.C. gentry who hails from a family of blue-collar Polish immigrants and works as an engineer; and her husband, Frank (the top San Diego actor Mark Pinter), a very Republican government retiree who’s devoted to his formal English garden.
Zacarías, the much-produced Mexican-American playwright whose adaptation of “Into the Beautiful North” premiered at San Diego Rep last year, makes gardens an admirably fruitful symbol in the piece.
When Tania proselytizes on the eco-friendly wonders of the native garden she’s cultivating, Frank responds with a dismissive, “You’re planting weeds on purpose?”
But there’s an irony in Frank’s discomfort with people and ideas from outside his very orderly world, set against his love for imported plants.
And it’s also at play in the way received notions of privilege and power get turned upside down as Pablo and Tania brandish the power of the law against the Butleys, who have unwittingly annexed part of the Del Valles’ yard.
As Tania says to Pablo in disbelief: “We are now The Man?”
Director Edward Torres, last at the Globe with “Water by the Spoonful” in 2012, has tapped an ace cast for the production in the Globe’s arena-style White Theatre.
Gilpin brings just the right blend of uppity WASP attitude and up-by-her-bootstraps grit to Virginia, who also gets some of the most character-defining of Jennifer Brawn Gittings’ smart costumes.
The ever-versatile Pinter gets a workout as the increasingly high-strung Frank, while Martinez skillfully teases out Pablo’s inner conflicts between ambition and principle.
And Flores is funny and fierce as the pregnant Tania, who starts out as a peacemaker but winds up in a blistering exchange with the shocked Virginia.
There are two other cast members who have no lines but whose scenes are absolute gems: Globe newcomers Alexander Guzman and Jose Balistrieri, in the roles of two gardeners whose episodes of fence demolition and the like are carried off with well-choreographed wit, grace and military precision on Collette Pollard’s ingeniously conceived dual-backyard set.
But at length, the show — which also boasts a rich sound design (from Bach to “Bittersweet Symphony”) by Mikhail Fiksel, and attractive lighting by Amanda Zieve — gets swept up in a too-strident comic mode.
It essentially becomes farce, a form that works best at exposing and sending up ageless human foibles — pride and pettiness and lust and jealousy. I’m not convinced it sits so well with such explicitly and intricately political and topical material, even though there are plenty of those more personal issues to poke fun at here as well.
The tone and the material wind up clashing like the Butleys and the Del Valles; it might be better if the comedy (and the actors) got a chance to breathe.
(Note: The original version of this story inadvertently omitted the first name of actor Mark Pinter.)
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 24.
Where: Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623