Writer Daniel Handler, best known for his children's books under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, was scribbling ideas after the death of his father, ideas and characters that would ultimately coalesce into his first play for adults Imaginary Comforts, or the Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit. True to form with some of Handler's earlier work, including 2010's The Composer Is Dead done with the help of elaborate puppetry at Berkeley Rep there is a delight in the absurd that runs through the play, as well as compassion for its characters, however they may be flawed. And in tackling adult ideas of loss, loneliness, addiction, self-medication, and delusion, Handler has given us a compelling, often funny, non-linear play, the biggest shortcoming of which may be that all its complicated threads and characters get fixed and tied up a bit too tidily.
The play centers on a female rabbi, Rabbi Naomi (Marilee Talkington), and an emotionally damaged but sincere man she meets on an internet date, Clovis (Michael Goorjian). Clovis chose to meet Rabbi Naomi for coffee because he thought her profile said she was a "rabbit," and he has a peculiar obsession with rabbits that we will ultimately come to learn arises out of a gruesome fairy tale that was told to him by a therapist.
With Beckett-esque minimalism and repetition, and a clever non-linear structure, Imaginary Comforts tours us through the psyches of these protagonists, as well as that of a woman, Sarah (Susan Lynskey), who hires Naomi to preside over her father's funeral whose father turns out, perhaps too coincidentally, to be Clovis's therapist and a man whom Clovis met in AA, known only in the program as "Ghost" (played by always funny Danny Scheie, who gets to show off some nuance and pathos in this role) whom he convinces to help act out this absurd story of a rabbit betrayed and killed by a man to whom he gave a child. (Hear more about this from the cast in the video below.)
Suffice it to say, Naomi does a terrible job with the funeral, in part because she doesn't grasp the importance of storytelling, and Clovis is not a particularly good playwright, though not for lack of trying. They, much like Sarah and the Ghost, are all grasping for meaning and solace in a secular and often brutal world, and that's where booze often comes in. Clovis, Sarah, and the Ghost are all alcoholics, as is Sarah's husband Michael (Cassidy Brown), whom we're told she married in Vegas on a bender, kept him around to please her father, and whom she will quickly break up with after the funeral.
Some of the best lines in the play are given to Sarah and to Scheie's character who at one point says he gave up on sobriety and boring talking in circles of chairs because he'd rather "have a show," and that lately, "I don't even need the show anymore, just one really good line." (I'm paraphrasing.) And Bay Area actress Sharon Lockwood, who plays Mrs. Gold, is delightful if a bit underused in a role that literally consists of crying, laughing hysterically, and annunciating only a single word.
The ideas about the real or imagined comforts of stories and storytelling, no matter how grisly, didactic, or baffling all of which, as well as a number of funny lines, get summed as basically "the history of the Jewish people," in a running joke throughout the play are where Handler's play succeeds the most. He has, after all, proved a master of telling stories that delight, scare, and enthrall children.
It's hard to empathize with any of these characters, though, except in a few moments with Scheie's Ghost, because Handler has painted them all a bit flatly they are types, and as in some Beckett plays, just vehicles for his words more than well drawn people. Also, and perhaps this is a common pitfall of first-time playwrights, loose ends and the allure of unresolved questions are both eschewed in favor of a couple tidy twists at the end that tie things up more neatly than they needed to be tied I'll just say that a romantic interest for Rabbi Naomi seems neither plausible, necessary, nor the perfect balm for her restless soul that the play tells us it is.
I also left feeling curious as to whether Handler was simply trying to illustrate an easy moral like "addiction is unhealthy," but he says in an interview that he's simply "interested in the mechanisms by which people attempt to fix their own lives" and "interested in the strict regimen that some people go through in order to improve their lives." Those ideas remain largely unexplored, however, and we're instead left with two sober characters who are supposedly "saved" by that sobriety, and one who relapses who may be just fine as well.
The spinning, circular, modular set design by Todd Rosenthal perfectly embodies the time-shifting movement from scene to scene, and Tony Taccone's direction is brisk and comical in all the right ways. I only wish I could have spent a bit more time in these clever characters' heads, or hearing words that felt less calculated coming from their hearts, even if it meant a play that didn't wrap up in a quick 90 minutes with no intermission.
'Imaginary Comforts' plays through November 19. Find tickets here.