A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Matt & Ben"

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note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Lynn Heinemann

"Matt & Ben"

Reviewed by Lynn Heinemann

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are friends and collaborators who share a dream, and it's not just for steak sandwiches, cable television, or a Sony Play Station --- as Ben responds when Matt asks what they want.

In 2003, playwrights Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers imagined just how two Cambridge boys with no playwriting experience could chance upon the formula for the film "Good Will Hunting," and in so doing create roles for themselves and capture several Oscar awards in 1998.

In writing their play, "Matt and Ben," Kaling and Withers also created roles for themselves, and the gender-bending casting is re-created with Marianna Bassham as the laid-back dopey goofball Ben and Philana Mia as the hard-working, more cerebral Matt.

As the production's director Bevin O'Gara writes in the program notes, "[This is] a story of two guys who bring out the best (and worst) in one another. Ben is the Yin to Matt's Yang."

This less-than-flattering account of the birth of a Hollywood classic includes supernatural occurrences and chance encounters with the rich and famous (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the famous and reclusive (J.D. Salinger).

When the play opens, we're in Ben's shabby, junk food-strewn Somerville apartment, where Matt arrives, late, for their date to continue adapting J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" for a screenplay.

That venture consists of retyping the novel, word for painstaking word, as Matt dictates and spells for Ben, at the computer keyboard.

When a script falls from the ceiling, consternation ensues and dissension escalates. Is it a gift from G-d? A curse? Evidence of heretofore hidden talents in the other? Should they share the news? Pass the script off as their own? How could they explain it? And, most importantly, which of them would play the lead role of "Will"?

Matt gets advice from Gwyneth Paltrow (Bassham), who recommends taking advantage of the opportunity he's been handed, while Ben is advised by J.D. Salinger (Mia), who decrees that he'll never release the rights for "Catcher" and counsels Ben that "paths that keep crossing lead you in circles. You find your own way."

Bassham is delicious as Paltrow, nailing her throaty voice, and skewering the stereotype of actresses to decline to eat (except on the sly) and favor Hollywood he-man hunks.

Mia is appropriately enigmatic as Salinger, who inexplicably asks for pudding and asserts, "I live alone. I don't like pests. I don't like men. I don't like John Steinbeck"

In enacting a scene from the mysterious script, the two actors portray Will and Skylar (played by Minnie Driver in the film), with varying degrees of success. When Matt acts the role of Will, the scene feels real, in spite of Ben's drifting accents which he claims are British. As the roles are swapped, Ben's over-the top mugging, as depicted by Bassham is hysterically funny and twitchy.

Meanwhile, Matt faces his own crisis, as he's been cast in a production of Sam Shepard's "Buried Child," a fact he's hidden from Ben.

The underlying tensions in Damon and Affleck's friendship is examined through reminiscences and even a flashback to their Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School talent show, which showcased their opposing styles. Ben broke from his usual repertoire of Shakespearean monologues, learned to play the guitar, and selected a song suitable for his pursuit of a girl -- Simon and Garfunkle's "Bridge Over Troubled Water."

Matt merely picked up a tambourine and clowned, upstaging Ben's heartfelt vocalizations. Nevertheless, the duo took top prize, to Ben's chagrin, who felt that effort should be rewarded, not just showing up and being oneself.

Hostilities, both old and new, escalate to a full-out fight over possession of the script. Punches are thrown, along with nearly everything in the apartment, until Ben is rendered unconscious by a round-house from Matt. When Ben awakens the next morning, Matt is gone and the words have vanished from the pages of the mysterious script.

After their differences have been acknowledged and apologies exchanged, the two dig in to recreate the script-- at an old manual typewriter as the computer was rendered useless in the melee.

No need to wonder if their memories were up to the task. As the play ends, we hear the boys' acceptance speech at the Oscar Awards ceremony, including a shout-out to the city of Boston.

Now, at last, the play about the creation of the movie has returned to the city where it all began, leaving us to wonder if a script about the creation of this theater piece will fall from the sky.

"Matt & Ben" (7 - 14 August)
@ 450 Massachuetts Avenue, CAMBRIDGE MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide