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Daniel Handler’s ‘Dead Rabbit’ an absurdist delight at Berkeley Rep

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From left, Sharon Lockwood, Marilee Talkington, Danny Scheie, Susan Lynskey and Cassidy Brown appear in the premiere of Daniel Handler’s “Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)
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“I am the ghost of the dead rabbit!” proclaims an earnest actor in a goofy, long-eared rabbit mask (the inimitable Danny Scheie).

And we’re off and running in beloved local writer (and sometime playwright) Daniel Handler’s slightly absurdist, slightly skewed charmer
“Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit.”

Under Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone’s sure hand, this world premiere (developed in the Rep’s Ground Floor program), about the power of storytelling — and love, and ghosts — to console and redirect lost souls, is funny and affecting.

A recently deceased patriarch, Dr. Gold (warmly portrayed by Julian Lopez-Morillas with a spot-on New York-Jewish accent), used to tell a favorite story to his daughter, Sarah (Susan Lynskey, caustic to just the right degree), when she was young.

Both were somehow haunted by it.

That story, about a rabbit and a changeling and a curse, with a strange ending that the various characters interpret in different ways, is woven thematically into the entire play, which rolls out nonlinearly.

Set on a revolving stage so that one scene can morph fluidly to another (simple and canny design by Todd Rosenthal), the action takes place at Dr. Gold’s funeral, where a well-intentioned but incompetent rent-a-rabbi (Marilee Talkington, continually in a hilarious dither) manages to alienate everyone; at a café where the rabbi and one of Dr. Gold’s alcoholic patients (played by an excellent Michael Goorjian) first meet, having arranged a date on an internet site; in the office of a cut-rate bookkeeper (a brilliantly gruff Jarion Monroe), who was Dr. Gold’s friend; and elsewhere.

All the characters are suffering from personal angst of one sort or another — from alcoholism to a sense of loss and despair and hopelessness — including two characters that don’t have enough to do and probably shouldn’t be in the play at all (although well performed by Cassidy Brown and the great comic talent Sharon Lockwood), and it’s great fun to track how most of the relationships intersect in unexpected ways.

True, the chronology is at times confusing. And the core story of the rabbit ghost itself, told in its entirety by father to daughter in an awkwardly paced scene, feels a bit underwritten, lacking the impact it should have.

But no matter — Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) — is delightfully on his game here.

REVIEW

Imaginary Comforts, or The Story of the Ghost of the Dead Rabbit
Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 19
Tickets: $45 to $97
Contact: (510) 647-2949 or www.berkeleyrep.org

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