Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Matt & Ben
Central Square Theater, Cambridge

Philana Mia and Marianna Bassham
They may not merit first-name-only status individually, but surnames are superfluous when they are joined by an ampersand. Local boys and Oscar winners Damon and Affleck are indeed the Matt and Ben of the title of the Off-Broadway hit written by Cambridge native Mindy Kaling (of NBC's The Office) and Brenda Withers now playing at the Central Square Theater in Cambridge. Set in Affleck's Somerville apartment circa 1996, Matt & Ben offers an imaginative explanation of how these two best friends wrote the brilliant, award-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting and boarded a skyrocket to fame and fortune.

In the summer of 2001, when Affleck's face adorned the cover of nearly every tabloid, recent Dartmouth College graduates Kaling and Withers were drawn to the story of his and Damon's amazing success. They conjured their plot from the idea that fame seemed to virtually fall into the pair's laps despite their hitherto unremarkable career paths. Matt & Ben takes the audience on a surreal journey back to before, when the struggling actors could only dream of becoming Hollywood princes, and suggests that their efforts were given an assist from the hands of the unlikely trinity of God, Gwyneth Paltrow and J. D. Salinger.

Marianna Bassham as Ben and Philana Mia as Matt follow in the footsteps of the playwrights, who played the roles when the show premiered at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2002, winning "Best in Fringe." The gender switch tests the suspension of disbelief at first, but the actresses comfortably adopt the mannerisms of their male characters and relate to each other as best buddies, melting away the disbelief. The public persona of each of the men lays a foundation upon which Director M. Bevin O'Gara, Bassham and Mia construct their characterizations, causing instant recognition of the distinction between the steady, buttoned-down Damon and the sloppy, frenetic Affleck whose life is reflected by the disorder in his dwelling.

One of Boston's most versatile actresses, Bassham could make a reading of the Congressional Record entertaining. Her kinetic energy is infectious and she really hits her stride overplaying (in a good way) the dim goofiness of the affable Affleck, rarely better than in the segment recalling a high school talent show performance with Damon. Matt approaches the gig professionally, giving an earnest rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the guitar, while Ben plays the tambourine and mugs relentlessly in the background. Whether playing joyful, angry, wounded, or any of a mélange of emotions, Bassham's facial expressions tell a richer story than the script imagines.

Mia has the thankless task of playing the straight man, but brings a strong and steady presence to the proceedings, showing a glimpse of Damon's internal conflict over whether to continue to work with his friend or accept a plum part in a Sam Shepard play. He is written to be less interesting than Affleck, but Mia works hard to convey the importance of his role as the smarter half of the duo. Where Bassham gets to wear everything on her sleeve, Mia is more restrained and cerebral. (Think Harpo vs. Chico.) In one fantasy scene, her Damon unsuccessfully tries to come on to Paltrow; in another, she channels the enigmatic Salinger. At all times, the actresses have great chemistry and fantastic timing with each other. The only time I had to remind myself that they were playing boys was during a hilarious, chaotic fight scene when they behaved like girls, but I actually think that was intentional. Kudos to Fight Director Angie Jepson.

Dahlia Al-Habieli's design of Affleck's apartment combines a genuine local flavor, with Red Sox and Celtics memorabilia all over the place—a typical, young single guy's pad, losing the battle to clutter. An open box of Lucky Charms, a bag of Fritos, and various beverage bottles indicate the inhabitant's diet, and sheets of paper and articles of clothing are strewn about in equal measure. Miranda Giurleo costumes Ben in a backwards baseball cap emblazoned with a B, a Red Sox t-shirt, warm-up pants and sneakers. Matt wears crisp chinos, sneakers, a white t-shirt and neatly pressed camp shirt. Clothes make the man in this case. Lighting and Sound by Aaron Sherkow and Nathan Leigh respectively create an aura of mystery around the arrival of the manuscript for Good Will Hunting and frame scene transitions.

Matt & Ben is often silly and sometimes absurd, but it is played for laughs and there are many. The running time is only about 70 minutes with no intermission and O'Gara's direction keeps the story moving apace with one or two brief lags. Overall, Matt & Ben is a delightful entertainment for a summer's eve and leaves you with enough time to soak up some of the Cambridge atmosphere where it all began.

Matt & Ben, performances through July 31 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or Written by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers, Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, Set Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli, Costume Design by Miranda Giurleo, Lighting Design by Aaron Sherkow, Sound Design by Nathan Leigh; Properties Coordinator, Megan Kinneen; Production Stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford (at press performance, Janet Howes).

Featuring Marianna Bassham and Philana Mia

Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography

- Nancy Grossman

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