Theater & dance

Stage Review

Fuller shines in Merrimack Rep’s wispy ‘13 Things’

Penny Fuller plays Virginia, the widow in “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti.”
Meghan Moore
Penny Fuller plays Virginia, the widow in “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti.”

LOWELL — There are really only two things to say about “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti.”

Penny Fuller is a very good actress. And this short, one-woman musical is very, very slight.

Like Jacob Marley, Ed Carpolotti is dead as the story begins. He has left his widow deeply in debt to guys with names like “Dino.” How she gets out of her predicament, and how she ends up feeling about Ed, are the focus of what little plot there is.

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Her story first hit the stage 20 years ago, as one of three monologues that make up Jeffrey Hatcher’s play “Three Viewings,” set in a funeral home. Then as now, Fuller played the widow, Virginia.

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Eventually Fuller’s friend and frequent collaborator Barry Kleinbort turned the tale into a musical for her, which premiered in New York in 2012. Now they’ve brought it to Merrimack Repertory Theatre, along with musical director and pianist Paul Greenwood, who accompanies Fuller on stage. (The setting has been moved to the Carpolottis’ gracious living room, accounting for the presence of a piano.)

Fuller is everything you could want in the star of a show like this, touching and funny and able to communicate ranges of emotion with small gestures. At Sunday’s matinee, her singing voice was a little shaky once or twice early, which I took as an acting decision, not a flaw. Although Fuller and Kleinbort have worked on cabaret shows together, this is definitely a character singing to us. Fuller starred in “A Delicate Balance” at Merrimack Rep in 2008, and it’s easy to see why the theater brought her back.

Virginia talks to us and sings to us, alternately recounting her relationship with Ed and the not-very-surprising surprise resolution of her predicament. Things get emotional at the end. To say much more would spoil it. Despite Fuller’s best efforts, this wisp of a story feels terribly thin, even though the play clocks in at just over an hour. It’s barely more than a sketch.

Following Stephen Belber’s two-hander, “Dusk Rings a Bell,” this is the second consecutive show at Merrimack that consists mainly of characters telling us about events we never see. It’s a difficult way to create drama.

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Kleinbort’s songs, such as “You Are My Happiness” and “One More Spring,” allow Fuller to evoke real feeling. But most come and go without making much of an impression.

It must be said that Sunday’s mostly older audience seemed quite pleased with “13 Things About Ed Carpolotti.” Perhaps the subject of late-life loss and the persistence of love resonated with them. But the pleasure of this show is almost entirely in watching Fuller at work.

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com.