Haunted by rabbits - and stories

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday October 18, 2017
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Someday we'll laugh about this - a phrase often spoken about a mortifying social event in an effort to defuse it in the moment. In other words, it will become a good story, and it is our stories that help bind us to others who are both present and departed. It's not surprising that Daniel Handler would make this a centerpiece message in his first foray into a full-length play; he has been famously telling stories of "unfortunate events" that eventually empower the children they befall in a series of young-adult novels under his pseudonym Lemony Snicket.

In Handler's new play, the "imaginary comforts" become a grownup parallel to unfortunate events as a collection of variously troubled adults eventually find healing warmth in the unlikeliest of places. That would be in "The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit," which is the subtitle of Handler's "Imaginary Comforts" having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep.

The play at first seems an oddball collection of situations, characters, and tones, but the threads eventually tie together even if their meandering qualities and erratically drawn characters continue to collide. The absurdism and downright silliness sprinkled through the 90-minute play ease some of the need for stylistic consistency, and if not all of the situations pay off beyond their sometimes-shallow conceits, an overriding playfulness ultimately keeps spirits aloft.

"Imaginary Comforts" opens with a neophyte playwright cluelessly directing a down-on-his-luck actor in a sketch about the vengeful spirit of a dead rabbit. "I will stalk you like the falcon stalks the camel," declares the ghost before the aghast actor playing the rabbit politely suggests, among other things, that the simile is not exactly spot-on. It's an amusing scene, crisply played by Michael Goorjian as the goofball author and Danny Scheie as the sardonic old-pro actor.

The reason for this scene is revealed considerably later on, but you can usually count on rabbits being referenced one way or another. Rabbits and Judaism. And how do they fit together? Well, rabbit is one letter away from rabbi, a fact that leads to some foolishness as the ghost-of-a-rabbit playwright mistakenly responds to a young female rabbi's online dating profile.

And down the rabbit hole Handler's play goes, as this earnest low-end rabbi clumsily prepares a eulogy for a man she never met but about whom she gleans a bedtime story he'd tell his daughter involving a rabbit that gets double-crossed in a deal it had made with a human. As Rabbi Naomi Mittleman bumbles her way into the lives of the various family, friends, and acquaintances surrounding the deceased, she provides the closest thing to a through-line.

Margo Talkington, in a series of just-off outfits by Meg Neville, is a little too aware that Naomi is supposed to be a comic character. Theatrical humor, especially when the world that contains it is a little wonky, works best when the characters play their situations without projecting an awareness that they're supposed to be funny. That's more the case with Julian Lopez-Morillas as the recently passed addiction therapist, Susan Lynskey as his plainspoken daughter, Jarion Monroe as his gruff best friend, Cassidy Brown as the daughter's on-a-whim husband, and Sharon Lockwood as the grieving widow.

Tony Taccone has directed the new play with an off-kilter zest, matching what Handler has provided in his script, and the intriguing set by Todd Rosenthal of rearranging walls and doors easily accommodates scenes in which the final words of dialogue in a preceding scene become the first in the subsequent scene.

As messages begin to evolve in this play of uneven pleasures, we hear that truth isn't always necessary in a job that requires solace, whether in the form of fractured fairy tales or the stories that make up a religion. "What are the chances," Rabbi Naomi is challenged, "that something real will ever comfort anybody?"

"Imaginary Comforts" will run through Nov. 19 at Berkeley Rep. Tickets are $45-$97. Call (510) 647-2949 or go to berkeleyrep.org.

Danny Scheie, left, and Michael Goorjian rehearse a play about the ghost of a dead rabbit in the opening scene of Daniel Handler's "Imaginary Comforts" having its world premiere at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne