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Snarky To The Stars 

In their highly publicized takedown of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers were pursuing multiple missions. Certainly Matt & Ben was designed to skewer the superstars, whose screenplay for Good Will Hunting catapulted them to celebrity. We note a few potshots taken at the pop culture that fuels their aspirations. Amid the surreal reconstruct of the events leading to their screenwriting collaboration, there are also extensive attempts to sketch the two film stars' characters and explore -- not without some genuine empathy -- their chemistry as friends.

And of course, there's the goofball idea of chicks playing Hollywood hunks.

What Matt & Ben accomplished best, however, was getting Kaling and Withers the work and attention they craved. In the nicely polished production at Spirit Square, the last in this year's City Stage Fringe Festival, you get the idea that K&W weren't altogether willing to take off the gloves. If these dreamboats were actually too dumb to write the script they're famous for -- it literally falls from the ceiling of their grubby, poster-strewn apartment, a gift from above -- then why do they so readily recognize its worth?

There's not a single instance where either Matt or Ben second-guesses the screenplay that falls in their lap. Nor is there any dimwitted discussion of who should play Will the genius and who should play his hardhat buddy Chuckie Sullivan. In fact, you can emerge from Matt & Ben nearly as ignorant about Good Will Hunting as when you entered.

Very subtly, Kaling and Withers have told us why. Before the golden manuscript drops into their lives, Matt and Ben are in the midst of adapting J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye for the screen. In an interlude as inexplicably fantastical as the script drop, Salinger visits our protagonists and solves the mystery of why his classic novel has never been filmed. No way he's granting the rights.

Evidently, Kaling and Withers learned the lesson more readily than their fictionalized protagonists. For all their admiration of Affleck and Damon, the playwrights knew that either one -- or Miramax Films, for that matter -- could have pulled the plug on their project sight unseen. On obdurate principle. Or on a frivolous whim.

Anne Lambert, Charlotte's Off-Broadway producer who directs Matt & Ben, slyly injects a few slivers from the Good Will Hunting soundtrack at the end. She also discourages her capable stars, Caroline Renfro and Tanya McClellan, from resorting to easy exaggerations in portraying the opposite gender or their outsized egos.

You actually have to strain to imagine any flecks of Affleck in McClellan's boisterous reading of the role. After a while, I found it easier to just forget the show had anything to do with the pathologically bland star. McClellan's brief turn as a vain and vacuous Gwyneth Paltrow was no less strange and delightful.

By comparison, Renfro never seemed to find a way to attack the steadier, smarter Damon. That didn't prevent the shtick where Ben demolishes her rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" from coming across as both funny and plausible. Decked out in mustache and trench coat, Renfro was even more comical as Salinger.

During its 69 minutes, Matt & Ben was rarely what I expected it to be. It was warmer, more empathetic. Straight-arrow Damon actually has qualms about capitalizing on the gift-wrapped screenplay! Once the ticket to Tinseltown landed in their laps, I expected all kinds of screwy ideas on how to cash in -- like offering the role of woebegone psychologist Sean Maguire to Bette Midler or Sly Stallone.

At Duke Power Theatre, you won't even see Matt and Ben salivating over the idea of acting onscreen in the juicy roles they hold in their hands. Seeing Kaling and Withers onstage sending up such crassness would have been a hoot. Although they bobble a lot of the potential satirical and absurdist impact in their concept, the lampooners capably honor the brand.

City Stage's edition is true to the product. From the sound of last Friday night's audience, many who had been lured to Spirit Square by the glamorous cachet of Damon and Affleck left heartily satisfied with the comedy of McClellan and Renfro.

Tony Wright and his Actor's Gym have certainly hatched a spectacular array of misbegotten efforts in recent years. They've run the gamut from a plodding Othello to an ultra-frivolous Omega. Some of the high-concept exercises from the Gym, like the Midsummer Night's Dream turned into a frolicsome wet dream via Victoria's Secret, have come closer to clicking.

Directing the Gym's new version of The Tempest at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, Wright finally gets it right. You'll have no trouble recognizing the physicality of Tony's style, particularly since his attractive wife, Courtney Wright, flutters around the stage throughout the evening as Prospero's indentured fairy Ariel -- in a skin-tight outfit.

This time, however, the costuming has been turned over to Jessica Culleny. The sensuousness of previous Gym incursions into Shakespeare hasn't been discarded by any means, but Wright's lascivious leer has been supplanted by a magical glitter. Courtney's costume is festooned with glittering rhinestones, echoed by the glitter she wears on her face. The nymphs who answer to her call, Leigh Fresina and Denise Zamora, enrich the spell with Fresina's choreography. And Wright's improvement as an actress continues apace.

There is no less magic to the craggy wizard Prospero with David Holland wielding his staff. Holland doesn't go overboard with the exiled prince's wrathfulness, grandiloquence, or even his vatic incantations, letting the Bard's words carry him rather than brandishing them. But there's nothing casual about the ceremonial moments, each of them lingered over solemnly by Wright's decree. Designing his soundtrack, Wright wisely seeks out Celtic flavorings in the New Age vein, and his lighting design chimes well with the overall concept. The modicum of scenery goes a long way, particularly aboard the ship when, amid an onslaught of percussion, the tempest strikes.

On top of all these voluptuary delights, Carrie Anne Hunt and Paul Riley are the essence of pristine purity as Prospero's treasurable Miranda and Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Naples. Enfolded into the skein of Prospero's most benign and fecund magic, these newcomers are wondrously aglow as they discover each other. If you've never been moved before by Ferdinand's biblically flavored courtship, this edition could be an eye-opener.

Under low-budget conditions, even the supporting players inflict few injuries upon Shakespeare's pentameter. Aided by Ryan Fischer's pus-green makeup design, Brian Logsdon is a sufficiently loathsome Caliban without a tail. Trinculo, the beast's erstwhile liberator, gets doused with agreeable drunkenness by Glenn Hutchinson; and Antonio, the evil brother who has usurped Prospero as Duke of Milan, is the perfect vehicle for Brian Willard's repellent gifts.

Wright on!

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