David Warren
David Warren
P.S. 122 is one of this city's most valuable theatrical institutions, but it's hardly the first place one would expect to find director David Warren. Over the past 10 years, Warren has forged a career that includes two successful Broadway revivals (Holiday and Summer and Smoke) and a couple of major national tours (Jekyll & Hyde and Copacabana), not to mention several important Off-Broadway productions; among these were Nicky Silver's Pterodactyls (for which Warren earned an OBIE); Richard Greenberg's Night and Her Stars, Hurrah at Last, and The Dazzle (all three of which co-starred Warren's longtime partner, Peter Frechette); and the Atlantic Theater Company's much-loved revival of Hobson's Choice.

Yet Warren has spent much of this summer in the unprepossessing East Village space that is P.S. 122, directing Matt & Ben. The 2002 Fringe Festival hit, in which writer/actresses Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers star as Messrs. Damon and Affleck, purports to tell the story of how the starry pair really came up with their Oscar-winning screenplay of Good Will Hunting.

"I'm just David from the block, keeping it real," Warren says, with a laugh, of his downtown foray. Actually, Warren has a deeply sentimental attachment to P.S. 122: "One of my first friends in New York was [performance artist] Tim Miller, who co-founded this space," he explains. "The place was important to me when I first started being interested in theater, about 20 years ago. Plus you can't let something like venue, or money, shape your career. That's dangerous. You do shows because you're fond of them, and this show feels exactly right to me right now."

Not that Matt & Ben felt right to him when he was originally approached. "One of the producers, Steven Pevner, and I are working on another project, and he asked if I wanted to do this," Warren relates. "At first, I said no; even though the show had some buzz last year, I knew very little about it. But when Steven told me it was two girls playing Matt and Ben, I said, 'Send it over.' After all these years, I know that if I really respond to a script it will be quickly. Two pages into it, I was laughing. Then I met the girls, who are so great and so funny, and I knew this could be nothing but fun."

Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers in Matt & Ben(Photo © Will Beckton)
Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers in Matt & Ben
(Photo © Will Beckton)
Kaling and Withers are also benefiting from the experience. "In the past," says Warren, "they really had to develop the show on their own -- as both writers and actors -- and they haven't had the luxury of just being actors working with a director. I think they didn't really understand parts of their own work because they didn't have the time to reflect on it. My joke with them is, 'You can always talk to the writers after rehearsal.'"

Warren relishes his reputation as an actor's director. He has guided Reg Rogers to both a Tony nomination (for Holiday) and an OBIE (for The Dazzle). He also escorted Martha Plimpton to an OBIE (for Hobson's Choice) and his direction has helped earn raves for such performers as Laura Linney, Patricia Clarkson, Betty Buckley, and Julie White. "As my career has developed, I've developed a deeper reverence and understanding for actors," says Warren. "I love working with them and I think I am good at helping them do their best."

He has never worked with Affleck or Damon, let alone met them, but Warren isn't worried if they should decide to drop in to see the show they have inspired. "I can't imagine that Matt and Ben would have anything but delight in seeing this play," says Warren. "Let's face it: They're rich, handsome, and talented. They basically own the candy store, so they should be able to laugh at themselves a little. And, while the play is somewhat satiric, in the end it's also somewhat admiring of them. I want to stress that this isn't a mean piece; 'mean' is so uninteresting to me. It's wicked, but not mean!"

The show's schedule -- it began performances on July 28 and will run through September 6 -- had to be tinkered with so that Warren could begin rehearsals of that aforementioned other project: the musical Harmony. Written by pop legend Barry Manilow and frequent collaborator Bruce Sussman, Harmony tells the story of The Comedian Harmonists, a German sextet of singer/musicians who were huge stars in the 1920s but who eventually ran afoul of the Nazi regime because the group included both Gentiles and Jews. The show will play Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre beginning November 25 and may hit Broadway this season. It's a dream that has been long deferred: The musical's original out-of-town tryout, also directed by Warren, was at the La Jolla Playhouse in the fall of 1997. Numerous rewrites, the failure of another show on the same subject (Band in Berlin), and a lack of appropriate venue have been among the reasons for the delay.

(l-r) Mark Chmiel, Steven Goldstein, Danny Burstein,Patrick Wilson, Thom Christopher Warren,and James Clow in Harmony at the La Jolla Playhouse(Photo © John Johnson)
(l-r) Mark Chmiel, Steven Goldstein, Danny Burstein,
Patrick Wilson, Thom Christopher Warren,
and James Clow in Harmony at the La Jolla Playhouse
(Photo © John Johnson)
Now, Warren says, Harmony is as ready as it will ever be: "This show has evolved beautifully over the past six years. Barry and Bruce have hammered away at it; they've been both smart and brutal in fixing the problems. They've masterfully made those hard decisions you need to when you're trying to perfect a musical." The director is confident that audiences will relate to the show, especially its score. "The first time I heard the demo CD, I was completely blown away," he tells me. "People who are expecting a revue of Barry Manilow songs will be very surprised. This is a phenomenal, sophisticated theater score. It's fun when it needs to be fun, but you also have this powerful story that's so moving and so human. You can just feel the passion on every page."

Warren has no idea what's next on his horizon after Harmony, but if his pattern holds, it could easily be Miss Julie or The Wild Duck. "When I've finished a big musical, I usually want to do something that involves three actors and a dead playwright," he says with a chuckle. "But when I am finished with that, then I think 'Wouldn't it be fun to be surrounded by all those people again, to check with the choreographer or sit in on a dance audition!' The bottom line is that I want to keep moving forward, and I hope that I never end up just doing one type of show. To me, that would be more dangerous than anything."

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[Ed. Note: To access David Finkle's review of Matt & Ben for TheaterMania, click here.]