Have you ever confused a rabbi with a rabbit? Me, neither, but it seems like a plausible mistake in Daniel Handler’s new play Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit, at Berkeley Rep. Daniel Handler (best known by his young adult fiction pen name, Lemony Snicket) has written a hilarious show where a very real world (spoiler alert: no actual ghosts) is governed by surreal logic. Everyone becomes connected in surprising ways and grows through the exchange and interpretation of stories.
In the play, we follow the rabbi Naomi through a disastrous date and an even more disastrous funeral job, until she finds a way to make sense of both her career and personal life. As she collects material for the eulogy she must deliver for Dr. Gold, she learns a story he used to tell of a betrayed rabbit whose ghost returns. This tale is analyzed and dramatized throughout the show, the ghost of the rabbit invoked not just by retellings of its story but also by slips of the tongue and unlikely names.
The fairy tale of the ghost rabbit becomes the parable each person needs.
Imaginary Comforts is non-chronological without being confusing and slowly revelatory without being frustrating. The plot inspires curiosity, rather than suspense. Each scene starts with the repetition of or response to the last line of the preceding scene (or at least a clear continuation of its events or conversation), even if the two scenes are in different times and places. It gives the show a pleasant sense of flow without feeling overly gimmicky. Todd Rosenthal’s rotating set whisks characters between scenes at a pace that matches the snappy dialogue.
The laughs start with the opening scene (an over-the-top rabbit ghost monologue, courtesy of Danny Scheie) and rarely stop. The rabbit shtick only gets better with the addition of sparkles and hopping. Much humor comes from Naomi (Marilee Talkington), a “rent-a-rabbi” who makes a mess of everything. She can’t comfort a grieving family, can’t deliver a eulogy, and can’t even carry her purse without dropping it. She’s constantly embroiled in minor misunderstandings, like when she interrogates her date Clovis (Michael Goorjian) about putting “Jewish” on his profile. “I mean to check none,” he insists, to which she replies, “You’re not a nun!” Jew jokes are a recurring feature of the script, but they’re the best kind of Jew jokes—told from an insider’s perspective, with a self-deprecating edge.
Amidst all this silliness, Handler’s themes are serious. How do you overcome addiction? How do you deal with career failure? How do you balance care for yourself and your family with a commitment to help others? The characters find answers that work for them, guided by stories. Failures become something to recount and laugh about in retrospect. The fairy tale of the ghost rabbit becomes the parable each person needs.
Director Tony Taccone’s straightforward, unobtrusive staging highlights the contradictions of Handler’s script. Just as rabbits are, according to Handler, “funny but spooky… adorable but creepy,” his rabbit-driven play is realistic but absurd, nonlinear but logic, farcical but earnest. There are no ambiguities on one point, though: it’s loads of fun.
Photo credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
4 out of 5 stars