What kind of a human being would confuse a rabbi and a rabbit?
That question animates a conversation near the outset of “Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit,” a new play by San Francisco writer Daniel Handler.
It is, in fact, the best-selling author’s first play, which opened this week at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The scene takes place during a Tinder kind of date between Clovis, a recovering addict, and Naomi, a young rabbi who is astonished to discover that Clovis actually responded to her online dating profile believing that she was a rabbit. Or “worked” as one.
The resulting interaction bridges the territory of the absurd and the very real, a stylistic hybrid of Beckett and Noel Coward that explores the fundamental role of stories in human existence. This is a tragicomedy about the stories we tell and have always told one another to make sense of the headlong chaos of our lives, from Genesis to family narratives to tales of the imagination — ghost stories, if you will.
In the case of Handler — author of the Lemony Snicket children’s books and young-adult series “All the Wrong Questions,” six adult novels and other creative works — stories have come naturally to him since childhood.
But storytelling is not so simple, nor is the line between childhood and adulthood so clear.
“I often think that the questions that haunt you in childhood continue to haunt you into adulthood; you’ve just been taught to push them aside,” Handler said in an interview just prior to the cast’s first run-through. “We begin to think of them when we’re children but we never stop chewing them over.”
Aside from Berkeley Rep’s 2010 adaptation of “The Composer Is Dead,” Handler’s piece for narrator and orchestra originally performed with the San Francisco Symphony, this is his first piece written for the stage. And it’s thanks to Tony Taccone, Berkeley Rep’s artistic director, that the play is having its world premiere.
As Handler tells it, he began writing scenes in the wake of his father’s death, without any clear idea of what he was writing. His family rabbi had come to offer comfort and discuss funeral details.
“She did a fantastic and sensitive job,” Handler said, “and when she left, it occurred to me: What would it have been like if she had been awful at it?”
Then another thing occurred: Handler looked at his appointment calendar and saw that in his grief-stricken state he had written “rabbit” instead of “rabbi.”
From such things inspiration is sparked: “Imaginary Comforts” also features a father’s death, a female rabbi, and an eclectic assortment of characters brought together around the funeral. One of those characters is Clovis, a former patient of the father, a doctor who treated addicts. Clovis directs a kind of metaplay featuring the ghost of a rabbit, which was a story the father had told his children. The circular repetition of the rabbit story as told by multiple characters with differing and even contradictory interpretations creates a Rashomon effect, underscoring how stories serve as a scaffold for the holding of our transient experiences.
Handler wasn’t sure whether what he’d written was really a play when he sent the rough draft to Taccone. He was both “surprised and delighted” when Taccone said he wanted to produce and direct it.
Taccone was attracted to the dark hilarity of the manuscript and brought it to Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Residency Program for development. For Handler, who was on uncertain ground in his first work for theater, it was “a blessing.” The company helped work through the circular features of the writing, in which the last line of each scene becomes the first line of the next scene, and polished its comic timing.
While a rabbi plays a central role in Handler’s play, this is not the first time he has pondered “Jewish” content.
“There’s quite a bit of Judaism in ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events,’ ” Handler said, referring to his series of children’s books by Lemony Snicket. “But I think I am more outspoken about my Judaism as I continue to write. Part of that is just finding my own identity within Judaism, and part of it is the cultural climate we’re in, where issues of representation and diversity and cultural understanding are on people’s minds in ways that they haven’t always been.”
That Jewish legacy is very subtly embedded in “Imaginary Comforts.” You find it in lines like Clovis’ authorial comment on his own rabbit-ghost script: “I thought it was Old Testamenty.”
It works to comic effect when various characters comment, “That is basically the whole history of the Jewish people.”
And it comes through most of all in Rabbi Naomi’s plaintive quest to understand the baffling rabbit story: “I don’t know what it means. I am haunted by it,” she pleads.
And that, in a nutshell, is what drives Handler’s deeply imaginative and authentic work: People are storytellers because stories haunt and comfort us, whether we understand them or not.