A Selective Guide to the Arts in Los Angeles

Joey Stromberg, Ian Bamberg and Libby Woodbridge in "What Happened When" / Photo by Darrett Sanders

I had just read Gillian Flynn’s “Sharp Objects” and watched John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place,” and I had the appetite for something equally dark and intense. I got it with the Echo Theater Company’s production of Daniel Talbott’s “What Happened When,” directed by Chris Fields.

I arrived at the Atwater Village Theatre early. It’s in a quiet residential neighborhood with easy, free parking and has an inviting courtyard to enjoy a drink before the show. Next door, Momed, a modern Mediterranean restaurant, beckons with gorgeous al fresco dining.

As I sat enjoying Momed’s charming atmosphere, along with a flourless chocolate torte and a killer latte with homemade chocolate syrup, I started to have second thoughts: What had I gotten myself into?

Billed as a “provocative and disturbing ghost story,” “What Happened When” was not going to make for a relaxing evening. Plus, the audience sits within inches of the actors, chairs pushed right up to the set.

But my first instinct to see what reviewers of the first run of this show had called “riveting,” “chilling” and “shocking” was right. This was one of the most powerful theater experiences I’ve ever had.

Three siblings growing up in a home of poverty, neglect and sexual abuse have only their love for each other and their imaginations to get them through. You become a fly on the wall during their intimate late-night conversations huddled in the younger brother’s bedroom. The immersive nature of the close seating reinforces the feeling of entrapment these kids experience.

Joey Stromberg (Will), Ian Bamberg (Jimi) and Libby Woodbridge (Sam) seem completely comfortable in these intense roles; their performances are gripping. Stromberg showcases a powerful range of emotion as the wild child older brother; he’s mesmerizing to watch. Woodbridge brings a sweet vulnerability to her role as stand-in mom (their real mother checked out long ago). Bamberg makes a convincing young survivor, facing adulthood in the most precarious of mental states.

This is a taut 65 minutes with superb playwriting and phenomenal acting. There are spots of humor as the haunting story unfolds, but there is not really any release until the final moment — when I couldn’t hold back the tears. A must see.

—Julie Riggott, Culture Spot LA

“What Happened When” runs through Aug. 23 with shows on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8 p.m. at Echo Theater Company/Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039. Tickets and info: (310) 307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com. Mature audiences 18 and up only. The show will reopen for a third run at the end of September with a new cast.