When Daniel Handler wrote a play, he sat down with his wife, who is not a theater fan, to break the news.
“I had to tell her I’d written a play like I was telling her I’d had an affair,” he says. “It was like, ‘I’ve done a thing that is totally going to upset you, and I need your support.’ ”
Handler, the author of six novels and, as Lemony Snicket, the 13 installments of A Series of Unfortunate Events, books for children about increasingly terrible things happening to the Baudelaire orphans, didn’t mean to write a play. But he has. He wrote Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit after his father died and the rabbi came to their house, offering comfort and solace.
“Two things happened,” Handler says. “One was I thought, ‘What if she had done a really terrible job?’ And the other was I looked at my calendar and I had written ‘rabbit’ instead of ‘rabbi,’ and I thought how close they were. “
The reluctant playwright said he was just writing something in a time of grief, not knowing what he was doing. What made it a play was how it moved very quickly from scene to scene and characters traveled back and forth in time, Handler says. Imaginary Comforts, which premieres at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Oct. 5, tells the story of Sarah, whose father has died. Her mother totally falls apart and unlike Handler’s family, they end up with a rabbi who does a terrible job at the funeral. And there’s a ghost of a rabbit trying to get Sarah to deal with her deepest issues.
Handler describes watching the rehearsals as “glorious,” because the cast is committed and thoughtful. He says there hasn’t been a lot of rewriting, but occasionally Tony Taccone, the artistic director of Berkeley Rep and the director of Imaginary Comforts, would suggest some changes.
“I would say, ‘Well, they’re still working on it,’ and then they’d do it again later, and I’d see it should be changed,” Handler said. “It turns out the artistic director of Berkeley Rep knows a thing or two about theater. And you can quote me on that.”
To figure out how to write a play, Handler read some playwrights whose work he’d seen and liked, such as Caryl Churchill, Annie Baker, Sarah Ruhl. He also read some older Japanese plays he found in the theatrical section of a bookstore. Handler was looking for things like how long a character could keep talking and how scenes worked. He found it helpful.
“Really good things inspire you in a very vague way,” he says. “And bad plays inspire you in a specific way, like, ‘Oh, God, I never want to do that.’ ”
Handler enjoyed working on the play, a process he found truly collaborative, unlike his experience on the Netflix adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
“I can go to Netflix and there are rooms of people working very hard on something that has nothing to do with me,” he says. “This feels like a bonafide collaboration. And it’s pleasing to be around people who are really good at their jobs, and Tony Taccone is very good at his job. As a writer who reads all his stuff out loud, it’s nice to have a workspace where other people are reading it and working very hard to breathe life into it.”
Handler says he would describe the play as funny and poignant and that it moves quickly. It’s also about death, he says, and stories we tell ourselves to try and make sense of life. That need is particularly crystallized around death, he says.
“Obviously, when someone dies, there’s the inevitable opportunity to take stock and try and tell a story about them,” he says. “You can tell a thousand stories and can tilt them all kinds of ways, and you want to be generous to the person, but also tell the truth to yourself.”
Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, Oct. 5 – Nov. 19, at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley, $30-$97, 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org