Like Alice, Sarah falls through a looking glass of rabbits and bewilderment in “Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit.”
Only Sarah’s heart is not filled with wonder. Instead she’s wracked by the bone-shattering pain of grief over the death of her father. Her dad is gone, her mom is in hysterics and the rabbi has botched the eulogy. In slow motion.
Inspired by the loss of his father, Daniel Handler’s “Imaginary” unfortunately stumbles in its attempts to evoke the freefall into chaos that death often sets off. The author best known as Lemony Snicket has conjured that pandemonium before, notably in the case of the Baudelaire orphans. But in this befuddling 90-minute fairytale for adults, now in its world premiere at Berkeley Rep, the points about the madness of grief get muddled somewhere in the dizzying spirals from comedy to tragedy and back. The running time is actually quite short, but the fable still manages to feel long and plodding.
We meet the ghost of a dead rabbit (Danny Scheie sporting a cardboard mask), hopping about while laying a vengeful curse on someone in the opening moments of this piece. It’s the first time the mix of tones seems off putting but not the last. Handler is trying hard to evoke an unsettling realm where punchlines and pain flip back and forth like a light switch. But the play demands a lighter touch than it gets and the playwright never quite decides whose story he wants to tell. The pivoting through view points is puzzling instead of provocative.
Is the wryly mournful Sarah (Susan Lynskey) the one tumbling down the rabbit hole or is it the neurotic and bungling rabbi (a deft Marilee Talkington) or perhaps the recovering alcoholic Clovis (Michael Goorjian) with the penchant for putting on a show? Bedlam nips at all of their heels as the play slips back and forth in time and place and coherence. It’s a technique that could work, if we could connect with the characters, but most of the people are as elusive as the plot.
The rotating set, a spinning black box, is a bit distracting, highlighting the kind of structural integrity the play lacks. Directed by Tony Taccone, Handler needs more architecture to hang his absurdity on. Here his affinity for cheeky philosophical digressions, one of his signatures, leads him astray. There are far too many shaggy dog stories as the play tilts haphazardly from wit to despair.
Contradiction can be insightful, especially if the disorientation feels true to life. But you need a potent sense of truth at the core of the quirkiness to ground it in something raw and real. Here the muddiness of the narrative feels baffling. A roster of accomplished actors, including Julian Lopez-Morillas, Jarion Monroe and Sharon Lockwood, feel wasted. The ending, which reaches for the meaning of mortality, doesn’t feel earned.
Ironically the comforts that “Imaginary” is trying to offer us, the need for soothing stories in a moment of crisis, ought to run deep after the series of unfortunate events that have befallen the country of late. But it’s too hard to keep your focus here, trying to solve the puzzle amid the frustration, to feel much of anything.
“Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit”
Through: Nov. 19
Where: Berkeley Rep, Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison Street
running time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $45-$97. www.berkeleyrep.org
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