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Stage Review

‘Rise and Fall’ updates Woody’s world

Old anxieties for a new audience

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / July 27, 2010

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VINEYARD HAVEN — “Annie Hall’’ is not just Woody Allen’s masterpiece. It also functions as an indelible time capsule of 1970s New York and Los Angeles.

But career anxiety, cultural pretension, romantic yearning, the competing claims of fidelity and lust: Matters such as these know neither time nor place. And these constitute the stuff of Sam Forman’s “The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall,’’ a small-scale but engaging comedy now playing at The Vineyard Playhouse and starring the playwright himself as a showbiz striver who is determined to break through on Broadway with a musical version of “Annie Hall.’’

Part homage, part update, part variation on Woody’s Eternal Themes, “Rise and Fall’’ is frequently clever, though it occasionally settles for glibness. Forman the actor is a significant asset to Forman the playwright. He brings likability, a jittery energy, and aspects of Allen’s nebbishy, neurotic persona to the role of Henry, an aspiring librettist, but he doesn’t overdo it, even as Henry’s dilemmas echo and mirror those of Alvy Singer, Allen’s alter ego in “Annie Hall.’’

Like Alvy, Henry frequently addresses the audience directly, offering a running commentary on the action. It’s difficult, however, to imagine the misanthropic, modernity-hating Alvy, should he be transported to the present day, ever going on Facebook or addressing a woman he’s attracted to as “dude,’’ as Henry does.

When we first meet Henry, he is fast approaching 30 and feeling stuck in limbo, both professionally and personally. (“Annie Hall,’’ of course, opened with Alvy having just turned 40. But who has time nowadays to wait till 40 before having a midlife crisis?) Henry’s last theatrical success — a musical adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull’’ in college, called “Birds of a Feather’’ — was so long ago that his parents, who run a successful furniture chain based in Boston, are asking why he doesn’t just come home and work in the family business.

Meanwhile, his relationship with his live-in girlfriend Annie (Heather Girardi) has gone flat. Annie, an aspiring actress working as a waitress, spends her evenings curled up on the couch, reading scripts. Their sex life exists mostly as a memory. Henry’s collaborator, a composer named Will (Lucas Papaelias), is not exactly stimulating company either, given that he is perpetually stoned.

So Henry racks his brain, trying to come up with a way to achieve mainstream success on the stage. “I just want to do something that isn’t in some hipster’s basement,’’ he says plaintively. Eventually, he has a brainstorm: What if he and Will adapted “Annie Hall’’ as a musical?

But there is the small matter of landing the rights. Henry schemes his way into an encounter with the daughter of Woody Allen’s producer, a statuesque blonde called here the Producer’s Daughter (Kate Gersten). He falls hard for her. She introduces him to the guy who holds the rights to “Annie Hall’’: a big-time songwriter called simply the Tortured Genius (Austin Lysy). Quickly, if implausibly, Henry is in line to write the libretto for the musical.

Ah, but if the path to love and happiness were that straight, it wouldn’t be true to the spirit of Woody Allen, would it?

Director Johanna McKeon (who is associate director of Green Day’s “American Idiot’’ on Broadway) stages “Rise and Fall’’ with an understanding of the pathos underlying the humor in this brief chronicle of scuffling wannabes on the margins of show business. Surtitles on a marquee above the stage — “A Time to Grovel’’ is one — wittily punctuate the action, but the sight of stagehands moving props between scenes is distracting.

Gersten gives the Producer’s Daughter a languid Valley Girl affect that heightens the contrast between her and her insecure, quasi-desperate suitor. Lysy makes the Tortured Genius the kind of amusingly vain, full-of-himself artiste that Woody Allen has always despised. He’s sort of a cross between the Paul Simon character in “Annie Hall’’ and the young actor seen in flashbacks who tells Diane Keaton’s Annie that he wants to die by being torn apart by wild animals.

Papaelias does what he can with Will, but stoners are seldom funny onstage, onscreen, or in life, and Will, alas, is no exception. “Rise and Fall’’ goes slack whenever the focus is on him. As the other Annie, the one in “Rise and Fall,’’ Girardi is solid, especially when Annie starts to see the possibilities embodied in the Tortured Genius.

But it is Forman’s performance that most frequently helps his own play achieve liftoff. He clearly feels at home with this material, which made me think about another tortured genius whose uneven career and sometimes-turbulent personal life could provide fodder for Forman’s writing talents. How about “The Rise and Fall of Woody Allen’’?

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

THE RISE AND FALL OF ANNIE HALL

Play by: Sam Forman

Directed by Johanna McKeon

Sets and costumes, Jacob A. Climer. Lights, Fred Hancock.

At: The Vineyard Playhouse, Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard.

Through Aug. 7. Tickets $30 ($25 for seniors over age 65), 508-696-6300, www.vineyardplayhouse.org