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Great Expectations?

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Roman poet and philosopher Quintus Horatius Flaccus--known best as Horace--once wrote that &quotlife; is largely a matter of expectation." Those who frequent the theater know that expectations often--despite our best intentions--color how we view a work. It could be that the great Roman's famous quote stems from his own theatergoing, since beside lyric poems, Horace was also known to write dramatic criticism.

This host's expectations could not have been lower for a play entitled This Is How It Goes, the newest work by Neil LaBute. LaBute has directed many films and written many plays, all of which have seemed dramatically flimsy and frankly, intellectually dishonest. LaBute's work until now, has shared a desire to shock and titillate above all else--a tendency that quickly became predictable and trite.

Despite an A-List cast, that includes Ben Stiller and Jeffrey Wright, the world premiere of LaBute's play at New York's Public Theater promised more of the same. The good news then is that This Is How It Goes marks the Mr. LaBute's first genuinely shocking work. It shocks precisely because it isn't trying desperately to make everyone in the theater nauseous. Instead of the playwright shouting through the mouths of his characters, LaBute finally allows the people that have sprung from his fertile (and active) mind to speak for themselves.

Only two of LaBute's plays have been seen in Los Angeles--and none have been mounted at a mainstage venue. While we shouldn't have expectations, Angelenos can at least hope that This Is How It Goes will be the next LaBute play to make to Southern California.

Sadly, of course, there is a flip side to the expectations that Horace wrote about. When I first heard that Center Theatre Group was putting on an update of Sophocles' Electra, set in an East L.A. barrio, it sounded like a perfect way for a large venue like the Taper to stage something a little more experimental.

These expectations were then increased three weeks ago when the author of this project, Luis Alfaro, gave an interview to the L.A. Weekly where he said that Los Angeles Theater is on the brink of greatness (a view that this host happens to wholeheartedly share).

So it is therefore a tragedy of almost Greek proportions, that Alfaro's Electricidad falls well short of expectations. The production exhibits (with one exception) a strong Latino cast and an excellent set--the problem unfortunately rests with Alfaro's text.

It is hard to remember when watching Electricidad--which has the three-jokes-per-page rhythm of a prime-time sitcom--that Sophocles' Electra is a tragedy. For eighty minutes the audience is treated to joke after joke about LoJack, Oprah, Forest Lawn and other local pop culture references, and only during the last fifteen minutes of the play does it get serious. But by then the combination of punch line overload and Bertila Damas' unconvincing performance in the Clytemnestra role makes the tragedy feel like an afterthought.

It must be said that some of Alfaro's gags are funny, but most of them have little to do with Sophocles and could have easily have been heard on a new episode of The George Lopez Show (although some of the jokes are rather dated, like one involving &quotgovernment; cheese quesadillas, so perhaps they might have already been heard on an old episode of a.k.a. Pablo).

But none of the jokes, even the funny ones, take us deeper into the lives of these classic characters--and what's more, none of the jokes ever connect Sophocles to the present in anything more than a causal or superficial way.

Setting Electra in East L.A. is clever, as is having Iphigenia onstage wearing Ben Davis trousers--the question is: why didn't Alfaro stop there? Watching vanity and mourning tear a family apart is just as tragic in today's barrios as it was in ancient Greece. Why did he feel the need to rewrite Sophocles' text in order to make it relevant?

Luis Alfaro obviously had good ideas in the past--he's the recipient of a MacArthur &quotGenius;" grant--and his current work to promote new theater is Los Angeles is admirable; but by stuffing laughs into a classic tragedy, Alfaro ignored some of Sophocles' best advice: &quotMuch; speech is one thing, well-timed speech is another."

Electricidad runs through May 15 at the Mark Taper Forum.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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