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'Matt and Ben' gives local legend new spin

Susan Saccoccia | 7/27/2011, 11:22 a.m.
Philana Mia (Matt) and Marianna Bassham (Ben) in “Matt and Ben” by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers. A.R. Sinclair

At the 1998 Academy Awards, when Ben Affleck and Matt Damon euphorically accepted the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay, a hometown legend was born: Within a decade of graduating from Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, two childhood friends write and act in their acclaimed movie, “Good Will Hunting.”  

Four years later, two recent Dartmouth grads, the actors and writers Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor on “The Office”) and Brenda Withers, create and perform their satirical version of this Cinderella story. Their comedy, “Matt and Ben,” becomes an Off-Broadway hit.

Now through Aug. 14, their entertaining and affectionate send-up is on stage at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, within a mile of Rindge, where the legend begins.

Deftly inhabiting the Kapoor and Withers roles are Marianna Bassham (Ben) and Philana Mia (Matt).

Unfolding as flashbacks during mid-90s when Ben and Matt are struggling for big-time careers, the play casts its subjects as caricatures. The two actors ably follow suit. Wearing a funky T-shirt and backward baseball cap, Bassham’s Ben is a hard-working and handsome doofus. She apes slacker male facial tics and body language and scratches her back with a hockey stick. In a crisp shirt, Mia’s Matt is a calculating straight man who always strives to please the teacher. At times, Mia’s face takes on the steel-eyed steadiness of Damon in his crueler roles.

Dahlia Al-Habieli’s set strikes a tone of relaxed, sly fun. Ben’s shabby Somerville apartment is littered with pizza boxes, laundry and sports memorabilia. A glistening Oscar replica sits on a bookshelf and a matinee idol photo of Ben occupies an end table.

As the play begins, Matt is secretly auditioning for a part in Sam Shepard’s breakout play, “Buried Child.” Meanwhile, Ben is doggedly working on their joint project, adapting — actually just extracting — a screenplay out of JD Salinger’s tale of adolescent angst, “Catcher in the Rye.” Crouched at his computer, Ben types the lines as Matt reads them aloud, spelling the words for his dimwitted friend.

Just as the sophomoric humor starts to wear thin, divine intervention quickens the pace. The “Good Will Hunting” screenplay drops from the ceiling, a heaven-sent gift. What to do? Matt and Ben grapple with their luck and wrangle for the lead role of Will, an MIT janitor prodigiously gifted in math. Their tussles are funny but clear-eyed close-ups on the collision of friendship and ambition.

Celebrity visits to the temporarily estranged pair are giddy comic highs. The famously reclusive Salinger (a pitch-perfect Mia) comes to call, advising the agog Ben to “never collaborate.” A sultry Gwyneth Paltrow (a deliriously funny Bassham) drops in on the bedazzled Matt and slings insults at stars, including her boyfriend at the time, Brad Pitt (“a hunk who can’t read”).   

Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara, this skewed homage to Affleck and Damon has the snappy homecoming it deserves. Although a bit overlong for its material (70 minutes without intermission), with nimble acting and smart one-liners, the production combines goofy physical comedy with satiric bite.