We’ve all seen “Good Will Hunting,” right? So let’s do a little stealth math, Will Hunting style. Two hilarious writers. Two talented actors. One skilled production team. One magical script. Add it up: before you can say “How ya like them apples,” you’ve got your summer evening planned.
“Matt and Ben” started in 2001, when recent college graduates Mindy Kaling (of “The Office” fame) and Brenda Withers considered the seemingly overnight success of the two young actors, who had previously shown little promise in writing. What if the script had, say, magically fallen out of the sky, and these two Boston guys had to stop thinking about their laughable adaptation of Catcher in the Rye and make a life-changing decision? From this premise, “Matt and Ben” was born, originally starring Kaling as bro-tastic Ben and Withers as meticulous Matt.
Elements of this buddy tale are oversimplified. There are points in the story when the tension is forced, the arguments repetitive. However, the script of “Matt and Ben” is saved by Kaling and Withers’ snort-inducing diologue and their use of uproarious cameos and references playing on common knowledge of Damon and Affleck. The plot takes ridiculous turns when it needs to, but this remains a relatable story of friendship and the odd ways in which we fulfill our destinies.
It would be easy to dismiss the complicated effects of casting women in the title roles by assuming that Kaling and Withers just wanted to play the characters they’d written, á la Damon and Affleck starring in “Good Will Hunting.” Beyond this though, the cross-gender casting adds an element of universality to the characters and, while they’re not “feminized” per se, an element of irreverence.
Besides, it’s just funny. Dwelling on the gender question is almost irrelevant here since Central Square’s actresses are so brilliant in their parts. One very quickly gets over the shock of gender bending and accepts this pair as our hometown heroes—or at least as real best buds. Philana Mia dives into Matt’s driven nature, addiction to quality and boyish charm. Marianna Bassham’s Ben could be plucked from any number of Faneuil Hall bars on game night. They have undeniable chemistry, and as sad as it is to have to say, it’s refreshing to see women portraying a friendship that doesn’t revolve around men or stereotypical “female” attitudes and problems.
Which is not to say there aren’t sterotypes at play here. Director M. Bevin O’Gara has definetly brought out the bros in Bassham and Mia. She’s also paced the play to perfection, down to every last “um” and f-bomb. Miranda Giurleo’s costume design definitely sets the 90’s tone, as does Ben’s Somerville apartment, thanks to Dahlia Al-Habieli’s scenic design and properties coordination by Megan Kinneen.
I have to say that I briefly questioned how true these characters were to the real Matt and Ben. I wondered what they would think of these portrayals. I considred how my opinion might differ had I been old enough to be annoyed by their relentless fame in the 90’s. And when those eight seconds were over, I went back to unabashedly enjoying a well-structured, well-acted, delightfully inane show. Whether for the thrill of watching the boys discover greatness just blocks from their home turf, or the secret hope that greatness will literally fall into your lap, or just for laughs: “Matt and Ben” is a wicked smaht choice.
“Matt and Ben” plays through August 14 at the Central Square Theater.