WRY TIME Even if Matt & Ben doesn’t have anything new to say about celebrity culture, it’s smart
enough to have fun with it — including casting the principals as women.
Good Will Hunting seemed to come out of nowhere in 1996 — a smart, if ultimately predictable, look at class conflict in America. Of course, it actually came out of out of the minds of two young men steeped in the ethos of Cambridge, Massachusetts, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
But a couple of young women, Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling (the latter born in Cambridge before graduating to the role of Kelly Kapoor in The Office), decided to have some fun with the idea that two seemingly unformed guys — one kind of loutish — could strike show-biz paydirt so quickly. The result was Matt and Ben, conceived in 2001 to amuse their friends before going on to entertain far more people off-Broadway, where Withers and Kaling played M & B.
Now it's come home, sort of, to the Central Square Theater (through July 31), where one of Boston's leading leading ladies, Marianna Bassham, along with Philana Mia, take over the roles of Ben and Matt, respectively. The idea is that Matt has come over to his pal Ben's testosterone-laced, junk-food-strewn mess of a Somerville apartment to work on a screenplay of The Catcher in the Rye. After much dopey jock banter from Ben and some Machiavellian maneuverings from Matt, they are the beneficiaries of screenplay ex machina — the script for Good Will Hunting falls from the ceiling.
In the course of deciding what to do, the boys will debate the glories of fame (money, women) and their antipathies toward each other's limitations. Matt thinks Ben should concentrate on becoming an action hero, Ben thinks Matt should lighten up about how much smarter he is than the rest of the world.
How much of this is real and how much of it is Withers-Kaling riffing on what they've picked up from celebrity culture? More the latter, with the key word being riffing. Matt and Ben has been billed as a satire of celebrity culture, though that's going a bit far. It's somewhat reminiscent of those comic Twilight Zone episodes — like Shakespeare helping a hack write teleplays. That may sound like high praise until you remember the comic episodes were almost always disappointing, particularly if they were written by the humor-impaired Rod Serling.
Withers and Kaling are not humor impaired. Even if they don't have anything new to say about celebrity, they're wry enough to have fun with it. Part of that fun, of course, comes from sending up macho culture by casting two women as the principals. The playwrights' big mistake is making Affleck dopey beyond belief, which is obviously not the case. (Gone Baby Gone and The Town are hideously overrated, but Affleck's direction is nothing if not smart.) Such a persona gives Bassham little to work with, though when she steps out of Affleck's shoes to play Gwyneth Paltrow and Minnie Driver she shows what a huge talent she is. Her most hilarious moment is playing Affleck singing backup to Damon on "Bridge Over Troubled Water" at a high school talent show as he pantomimes almost every line and hits the annoyed Damon's shoulder with a tambourine to keep the beat. She's also terrific as Affleck playing Will Hunting.