A different series of unfortunate events: Down the rabbit hole with Daniel Handler

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Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

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Daniel Handler is not Lemony Snicket, the melancholy fictitious author of Handler’s popular children’s books “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and “All The Wrong Questions. Yet his sense of utilizing humor as relief in tragic and grievous situations, as a torch in a pitch-black cave, still comes through in Handler’s adult theatrical debut, “Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit,” which premiered at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this month.

“I would say that it bears little resemblance to ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’” Handler shared in an interview with The Daily Californian. “But it does have a kind of over-educated, digressive philosophical side, which some Snicket readers may recognize.”

Handler’s infamous writing style — whether publicized under Snicket’s name or his own — is rife with dripping satire, jests at mundane social conventions, tongue-in-cheek observations and clever wordplay. These characteristics have earned him a devoted fanbase of children and adults alike, regardless of his works’ vast intended audiences.

This time, Handler was inspired to write “Imaginary Comforts” from a simple erratum made in the aftermath of his father’s death.

“I looked at my calendar and where I had written ‘rabbi,’ to show that (our rabbi) was visiting, I had instead, in my emotional state, written ‘rabbit,’ ” Handler said. This, coupled with Handler’s gratitude that the rabbi who aided his family after his father’s passing “did a really wonderful and sensitive job,” caused him to wonder how events would have transpired had the opposite occurred.

In “Imaginary Comforts,” not only does a rabbi mortifyingly ruin the funeral of protagonist Sarah’s father, but the ghost of a rabbit inexplicably enters Sarah’s life. While little has been released regarding the rest of the plot, promotional material for the play portrays an image of a man in a dilapidated, paper-mache rabbit mask, scratching his head with one hand and holding a bottle of whisky in the other.

True to Handler’s dark-comedic style, tragically humorous and humorously tragic mishaps ensue. While he was keen to not give away any of the show’s surprises, he did reveal that one such a mishap occurs when the show’s rabbi makes Handler’s same spelling mistake: after accidentally writing “rabbit” on her online dating profile, she finds herself on a date with a man searching for a rabbit.

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Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

But Handler preferred to discuss the show in more abstract terms. “I hope the very opening of the play rebels against when you go to the theater and from the first few seconds of the play, you know immediately how terrible it’s going to be,” he expressed. “You know, when you’re in the theater and you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s this kind of play and I’m stuck here.’ So I tried to recreate that and then shatter that in the first couple scenes.” He abstained from providing further detail, sharing only that this opening utilizes a bunny mask.

Though “Imaginary Comforts” is his first play for adults, Handler had previously worked on a theatrical production with Tony Taccone, the director of “Imaginary Comforts.” In 2010, the Berkeley Repertory produced a children’s musical adaption of Handler’s “The Composer is Dead” — originally commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony — which Taccone directed.

Handler stated plainly that the challenges in writing for mature audiences were no different than those in writing for children. Instead, his writing process is always demonized by one problem in particular. “The main challenge is that first it’s horrible, and then you try to make it less and less horrible.”

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Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

The Bay Area-based author and playwright did contrast, however, his experience in working with the Berkeley Repertory on “Imaginary Comforts” with that working with Netflix on its 2017 adaption of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” for which he was an executive producer. With Netflix, everything would be filmed and set before it was shown to him, leaving little room to make changes or alterations. Whereas for the world-premiere of Handler’s show, the playwright played a role in making “Imaginary Comforts” stage-ready. “When you’re workshopping a play,” he explained, “everything is in constant flux. So that’s pretty fun to watch them find their footing and then to say, ‘Oh no, wait, I need to change something over here.’ It’s a much more fluid process.”

Affable and humorous in his responses, Handler rarely finished his answers without a laugh or chuckle. Yet when asked if the wit in “Imaginary Comforts” resembled that of his prior work, he became semi-serious. “Once you start talking about your sense of humor,” he said, “you become the least funny person ever.” Instead, he shared the difficulties that arise in translating written humor to jokes that sound funny when spoken. “I would think, ‘Oh this is going to be hilarious,’ and then someone would say it out loud, and I would think, ‘No it isn’t.’ ”

Handler opts to let the audience be the judge of the show’s humor. As for one audience member in particular, the rabbi who first sparked Handler’s idea, Handler recalled their recent phone conversation. After informing his rabbi that she inspired a play pondering the alternative in which she were horrible, she asked if she would recognize herself within the show. Handler laughed and replied, “I certainly hope not.”

Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].