Harking back to the days when the Ricardos and Mertzes got into ludicrous feuds and Lucy and Ethel wound up sobbing on each other’s shoulder, “Native Gardens” is an out-loud situation comedy rife with tiresome antics and characters that telegraph American tics minted circa 1957.
The premise of Karen Zacarias’s utterly predictable play, directed for Arena Stage by Blake Robison in a manner suggesting every joke in the script had been highlighted in yellow, concerns the bruising battle over a property line in a Washington neighborhood. Fastidious gardening nut Frank (Steve Hendrickson) and volatile wife Virginia (Sally Wingert) face off against the new younger homeowners next door, lawyer Pablo (Dan Domingues) and expectant graduate student Tania (Jacqueline Correa).
Yes, it’s the White Couple vs. the Latino Couple, together scrounging for broad yuks in a pair of back yards that might as well be seeded with trigger warnings. Frank and Virginia, uptight Republicans, have no clue how to talk to the hipper Pablo and Tania, who immediately have to landscape the yard of their eyesore of a fixer-upper because Pablo is having colleagues from his swanky law firm over for a barbecue this weekend. But oh, no! Some of Frank’s perfectly manicured flower beds are on Pablo and Tania’s side of the border! And darned if in the midst of settling into a new home and having a baby and judges from Frank’s garden club are coming over to rate Frank’s prized peonies, the issue of who owns what strip of lawn has to be settled RIGHT NOW!!!
The comedy of cultural misunderstanding, a television mainstay stretching back to the heyday of Norman Lear (who at 95 is being feted in December at the Kennedy Center Honors) is offered no trace of exciting resuscitation here by Zacarias, who in prior plays like “Legacy of Light” showed a talent for lyricism. An effort is made now and then to inject up-to-the-minute politics into “Native Gardens,” as when the insult-lobbing neighbors invoke the proposed wall that was a hot-button issue of the 2016 presidential campaign, in reference to their own backyard border struggle.
Like almost everything transpiring on Arena’s Kreeger Theater stage, though, the joke is shoehorned into the evening in the service of obviousness. The actors do their parts to ensure the characters come across as insufferable, delivering their lines with the kind of exaggerated energy that makes us feel as if each of their conversations is meant to end not so much with a “Goodbye” as a “Cut!”
Native Gardens By Karen Zacarias. Directed by Blake Robison. Set, Joseph Tilford; costumes, Kara Harmon; lighting, Xavier Pierce; sound, Scott W. Edwards; fight direction, Aaron Preusse. With Guadalupe Campos, Oscar Ceville, Javier del Pilar, Christopher Rios. About 90 minutes. $81-$111. Through Oct. 22 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.