Daniel Handler’s Wabbit Twouble

The author's first play, "Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit," projects his Gothic imagination onto issues of bereavement.

One of the actors tripped forward in Daniel Handler’s Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit (through Nov. 19 at Berkeley Rep) as the center of the stage spun like a centrifuge. She quickly regained her balance as the scene behind her circled into darkness. This early misstep indicated the direction of the play’s propulsive movement forward. It wasn’t going to arrive in the steady stream of spryly delivered one-liners or the grim fairy tale stitched into the plot’s underlining. Instead, the illusion of motion dizzily wheeled itself around and around like the stage in “America Sings,” a now defunct Disneyland ride.

Better known as the children’s author Lemony Snicket (A Series of Unfortunate Events), Handler’s first play is a departure from his previous work solely in terms of genre. But his Gothic imagination and preoccupations still remain fecund. There are three lessons we’re meant to take away from Imaginary Comforts. One, parents scar their children while they’re alive and then, after they die, continue to scar and haunt them. Two, bereavement is difficult. And, three, the imagination is a useful tool to comfort ourselves with when a loved one dies.

Even the young adult audience who are rabid followers of the author’s literary alter-ego might not find these homilies revelatory. Rabbi Naomi (Marilee Talkington) embodies the point of Imaginary Comforts, Sarah Gold (Susan Lynskey) the wry counterpoint. At a cafe over coffee, Sarah hires the inexperienced rabbi to officiate at her father’s funeral services. Her decision to do so is puzzling, especially since Naomi’s understanding of human emotion sits squarely on the spectrum. Part of the comedy, the levity of the playwright’s approach, comes from Sarah’s amusement and astonishment over the rabbi’s incompetence. Naomi is a spiritual leader without any of the requisite depth or breadth of life experience to make the Torah sound meaningful in a crowded synagogue.

The other comic part is pure leporine, which is to say rabbity. Before his death, Dr. Gold counseled rehab patients. In a flashback — Imaginary Comforts jumps back and forth in time — he suggests to one of them, Clovis (Michael Goorjian), that he write and stage a mini-theatrical as a way to heal. Clovis asks a pal in his recovery meetings to play the lead, the ghost of a dead rabbit who seeks revenge. This tale turns out to be a bedtime story that Dr. Gold used to tell Sarah. Although adult in nature, with ghoulish elements of betrayal and murder, Sarah remembers the story fondly.

(l to r) Marilee Talkington (Naomi) and Susan Lynskey (Sarah Gold) in the world premiere of “Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit,” at Berkeley Rep. (Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Growing up, her father was often absent, attending to his practice. Reminiscing about those moments together with him, and the vengeful rabbit, are the only ones that soften Sarah’s affect. Otherwise, she’s as urbane and caustic as Dorothy Parker. The fairy tale, in fact, has informed if not entirely shaped her character. She struggles with trusting people. But shortly before her father dies, Sarah marries Michael (the supremely relaxed Cassidy Brown), a man she meets in a Las Vegas bar. Later in the play, Sarah explains the sudden marriage to Naomi the way a knowing older sister does. Their relationship hasn’t blossomed into a friendship but she wants the rabbi to get better at doing her job. By offering up her personal details, Sarah suggests a less sheltered approach to life.

Clovis suffers a curious fate. He starts out as the protagonist, turns into a temporary catalyst and then, superfluously fades away. Since the rabbit tale belonged to Dr. Gold and then to his daughter, it would have made more sense in this psychological universe if Sarah had been able to use it for her own purposes. Clovis and Naomi meet because of a typo. He’s responded to her online dating ad, in which she mistypes her profession as “rabbit” not rabbi. It’s an unlikely pairing from the second they meet. Naomi and Sarah are better mirrors for each other but the play doesn’t make room for them to really bond.

Imaginary Comforts relies on a gimmick to connect the dots, a man in a bunny’s mask with long ears and big buck teeth. Robert Askins’ play Hand to God — also at Berkeley Rep, earlier this year — opened with a similar gambit. A disgruntled hand puppet possessed by the devil wreaks havoc in the life of an adolescent boy. But Handler’s rabbit, however admonitory he initially sounded, ends up an inconsequential figure lingering in the background. The play treats grief — one of several things the animal comes to symbolize — with kid, no, with angora-lined gloves. The jokes are fluffy and soft but their long-term capacity to console someone in mourning wouldn’t last through one winter of discontent.  

Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, through Nov. 19 at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org

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