Daniel Handler’s ‘Imaginary Comforts’ finds comfort in dead rabbit

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Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

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“This is a difficult time for all of us.”

This sentiment is the last thing a newly-hired rabbi, horrifically underprepared for a funeral, should tell the dearly departed’s family. But in Daniel Handler’s “Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit” at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre this statement is one of the lesser offenses made by rabbi Naomi (Marilee Talkington).

Naomi is a rabbi of the lowest caliber (a “rent-a-rabbi,” she bemoans), who knows she is terrible at her vocation but affirms her calling nevertheless. Clovis (Michael Goorjian) is a recovering alcoholic, obsessed with the story of a rabbit’s ghost. “Imaginary Comforts” tells their respective stories as these two characters’ storylines interact with that of the Gold family, which has recently lost its patriarch, Dr. Marcus Gold (Julian López-Morillas).

The story of the ghost of the dead rabbit permeates into the life of each character. Though the ghost is a character, somewhat — fantastically played by Danny Scheie in a rabbit mask and in an affecting and heart-filled performance — the memories of the story and its storyteller Dr. Gold, more so than any ghost, haunt the ensemble cast of eight.

“Imaginary Comforts” forces its audience to question whether it’s pure folly to assuage our fears with the intangible. The play sensitively weaves together its themes of Judaism, loss and the power of stories, finding their points of interconnection against a foreground of alcoholism and the death of a loved one. As Handler told The Daily Californian, the show “does have a kind of over-educated, digressive philosophical side.” While some may find this side alienating or even irking, few would be unappeased by the show’s sharp dialogue and wit, with one-liners heavily reminiscent of those in Handler’s acclaimed prior works, such as “A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Much like the natural conjuring of memories, the story is told anachronistically, throwing twists and turns with every roundabout of the two-part revolving stage. Though the play consistently outsmarts its viewers, each scene operates like a puzzle piece as the viewer attempts to piece together connections between characters. The set design’s brilliance, though far from unexpected with Tony-award winner Todd Rosenthal billed as scenic designer, is epitomized each time one scene rotates off stage, its actors continuing on as another rotates to the forefront.

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Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre/Courtesy

Where the play falters, however, is with some of its characters. The portrayal of one character’s sexuality, for example, pushes the limits of overtly stereotypical. While the laughs were largely with, and not at, the character, these elements frankly felt outdated, be they not overtly offensive. All the more, the only acting direction of Sharon Lockwood’s Mrs. Gold is to sob in hysterics, the narrative declining to further develop her character from the role of the grief-stricken wife.

Though he delivers some of the most quintessentially Handler one-liners, Goorjian’s Clovis originally appears to be a hollow trope of a character, a slouching, sarcastic man-child with a tragic backstory. While Clovis’ trauma is undeniably somber and pitiful, the narrative prevents his audience from achieving true sympathy, even when he’s proven to be more than an intentionally unlikeable archetype.

Nevertheless, two characters shone with the life given them by their respective actors. Loud and always yelling, Jarion Monroe expertly portrays Jack, the best friend of the deceased, with a dual sense of humor and humanity. Whether his character is sarcastic or grief-ridden, Monroe commands the audience’s laughter or silence whenever on stage.

Talkington’s rabbi Naomi, meanwhile, is charmingly played as continually and invariably disheveled in her tone and mannerisms, entering each scene not unlike the way by which a gust of wind pushes an enormous pile of autumn leaves through an open door. Her affable, flustered nature as she stumbles through colossal blunders provides some of the play’s most charming moments of comedic relief.

Regardless, in every joke made by a character, Handler’s voice is easily perceptible; even more evident is Handler’s transitive self-insertion. The play’s underlying theme of “putting on a show,” both literally and metaphorically, to provide comfort to oneself, can be easily traced to Handler’s own decision to write the play in the aftermath of his father’s passing. Handler connects his own faith to the importance of telling stories for comfort, which the play alleges is the “history of the Jewish people.”

The self-awareness of “Imaginary Comforts” is two-fold. Handler’s utilization of the show to process his grief allows the viewer a deeper comprehension of the characters’ motivations. All the more, it comes into force in the play’s attempts to eschew typical theatrical conventions. While Handler promised that the scenes following the opening are meant to overturn overdone tropes in theater, the play never verges on becoming uncomfortably self-aware or self-critical — an unexpected relief.

While imperfect in its execution, the talented cast of “Imaginary Comforts” and well-written examination of values in moments of grief provide an entertaining and thought-provoking look at love, loss and the stories we tell.

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