Matt & Ben
by John Stoltenberg
After filming not a few Rotten Tomatoes targets and appearing in too many tabloid headlines, the real Ben Affleck has cleaned up and redeemed himself in the public stargaze, both professionally and personally. And the real Matt Damon, whose charmed professional and personal life never suffered Affleckian setbacks, regularly sees his name on major marquees as well. Between Batman and Bourne, they’re enfranchised for life. But there was a time back in the day when the two het hunks were just two struggling actors and not-snuggling buddies, and the luminosity of their stars in the galaxy of pop culture was yet to dazzle.
In an inspired comic riff on both celebrity obsession and reality, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers created and wrote (and themselves acted Off-Broadway in) a show called Matt & Ben, which imagines Damon and Affleck in 1995 before the career godsend that was Good Will Hunting (the movie that earned them an Oscar for Best Screenplay). And the joke that jump-starts Kaling and Withers’ clever conceit is that the script of Good Will Hunting may literally have been sent by God: In a fast tableau it falls from the ceiling kerplop.
Like, how else to explain the brilliance of two relatively dim bulbs, right?
Flying V—the inventive theater company that mines pop culture and comes up with precious theatrical mettle—has just opened a production of Matt & Ben that is howlingly funny. It features Tia Shearer (as Matt) and Katie Jeffries (as Ben), whose quicksilver comic gifts are not to be missed. And it takes trendy genderbending out for a fresh, fun spin
The play takes place in Ben’s spacious student-style apartment (economically devised by Set Designer Jos. B. Muscumeci, Jr.) with a Red Sox pennant, dart board, and School Ties poster on the wall. (The mock Matt and Ben before us are said to have appeared in that film—as did the actual actors.) The period desktop Mac and snack food wrappers strewn about say entitled boy cave.
At rise Matt and Ben (dressed preppy casual by Costume Designer Kat Fleshman) are collaborating on an ill-conceived film version of Catcher in the Rye (“Adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery”), and we get to know that Matt’s the smarter hardworking one and Ben’s the slacker dullard. The ripe comic potential in the pair’s contrasting temperaments yields plenty peals of laughter as the zany and surreal story unfolds.
Shifts in layers of reality are signaled smartly by Lighting Designer Kristin A. Thompson, as in a silly bit when Matt plays guitar and sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at a mic stand as if for a live audience and Ben upstages him bizarrely on tambourine. Another unreal-world scene occurs when Gwyneth Paltrow drops by (a funny, spot-on caricature by Jeffries), and later J.D. Salinger shows up (as an outsize clown of a character played with showstopping gusto by Shearer).
Director Matt Bassett stages the show with the slickest and tightest comic precision. And when the tension between Matt and Ben goes mano-a-mano (as with dueling dudes it’s wont to do), Shearer and Jeffries’s comedy goes off the charts—no small thanks to Fight Director Jonathan Ezra Rubin.
Matt & Ben is a show that skewers a whole lot—male-male cockiness and competitiveness, the circus that is celebrity, the crazy fluke that’s creativity—yet does so without mean-spiritedness and ultimately with genuine affection and admiration for working artists. After thoroughly enjoying both the levity and brevity of this screwball show, I found myself wondering whether it would have been as laugh-out-loud funny had Matt and Ben been played by male actors. And without hesitation I found myself answering: No. What Kaling and Withers have created, and what Shearer and Jeffries now boldly embody, is something remarkable: the guise of guys seen through women’s gaze as human comedy.
Sure, Matt & Ben is essentially lite, long-form sketch comedy. But as such it’s a sheer delight, plus it’s got something quite sweet to say.
Running Time: 65 minutes, with no intermission.