note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
Take two talented actresses, an insightful young director, an award-winning set designer, and a quirky script about two homegrown, meteoric superstars, and you’ve the ideal formula for Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers’ gender-bending, off-Broadway hit play, “Matt and Ben”. Since 2002, the play’s success has snowballed, appearing nationally and internationally. It’s based on a day in the life of longtime Cambridge friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, in 1996, before their huge hit movie, “Good Will Hunting” thrust them into the international spotlight, on the red carpet, and as big winners at the 1998 Oscar Awards, capturing the award for Best Original Screenplay.
Kaling, who was born in Cambridge, teamed up with her Dartmouth classmate, Brenda Withers from New York to write this pleasant parody on those pals with opposite personalities. They portray Damon as intelligent and Affleck as a fun-loving, non-serious, non-achiever. “You’re not a writer. you’re a movie star,” Matt hollers at his pal, defending his reason for taking the main role and credits in “Good Will Hunting”. “Matt and Ben” is a 70-minute comic piece of fluff that doesn’t pretend to offer insight or an inside track into the guys’ biographies, talent, or psyches.
It’s a fun forum for versatile actresses, especially Marianna Bassham, who is hilarious as tall, dark, handsome and popular Ben. Her gestures, lumbering walk, and voice ooze boyish testosterone, while Philana Mia as Matt is more serious, pragmatically insisting that practice, practice, practice makes perfect. Basically, Ben’s a goofball; Matt’s the grownup.
The play explores whether good things fall from the sky and ends with a surprising twist. The “Good Will Hunting” script with their names inscribed, suddenly falls through the ceiling of Ben’s disheveled apartment in Somerville, (cleverly designed by Dahlia Al-Habieli). The guys think it must be a gift from God. Ben, a huge fan of J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” is convinced they should ignore it and adapt his favorite book, while Matt has higher aspirations. Besides refusing to look askance at this heavenly gift, he’s secretly awaiting a call, telling him he got a part in a play at Cambridge Repertory. Under M. Bevin O’Gara’s slick direction, Bassham is also hysterical in her fantasy cameo as Gwyneth Paltrow, (who was engaged to Brad Pitt, and had dated Affleck). And Mia is incredulous in Ben’s dream sequence involving JD Salinger, who advises him against adapting his book.
While some serious theatergoers were disappointed in the play, Bassham and Mia’s performances are so entertaining, I’d wager this fun romp would even make the dynamic duo chuckle.
BOX INFO: One-act, 70-minute play, written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, extended through August 14 by popular demand, appearing at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Contains strong language. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2,7 p.m. Tickets weeknights, including Sundays, $40; weekends, including Fridays, $45; seniors, students with college IDs, $25; youths, 18-under, $15. Call 866-811-4111, visit centralsquaretheater.org or the Box Office.