The recent off-Broadway hit Matt & Ben, written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, is having its Florida premiere in a Mad Cat Theatre production at the Light Box Studio, directed by Paul Tei. It's cute.
The plot is a simple fantasy about talent, male bonding, and fame, based on the real-life story of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's overnight rise to stardom when they won the Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting in 1997. How did these two first-time screenwriters, out of the blue, come up with this megahit? Young, hot, and incredibly lucky, the two instantly became tabloid fodder and the stuff of dreams. Matt & Ben also was written by two buddies, though in this case it is two young women who also went ahead and played Matt and Ben in drag in the original production, garnering for themselves and their play high praise at the 2002 New York Fringe Festival. Mad Cat's production has Michelle Goyette playing Matt and Ivonne Azurdia as Ben, but it also adds an extra actor to play the loopy cameos of J.D. Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow that were originally portrayed by the same actresses playing Matt and Ben. It was a lazy decision, but justified by Joe Kimble's shameless, clever performance. The comedy has the feel of a drama class improvisation not fully worked out, but Tei's production makes it enjoyable and almost touching by the end.
Opposites attract. That, Matt & Ben tells us, may be the key to the friendship of the real Matt and Ben. Given that most of the audience will have acquired any knowledge of that famous duo second-hand, it seems as good a dramatic conceit as any. Let's face it, we don't actually know these people, and what matters here is whether the characters Kaling and Withers created entertain and make sense in Mad Cat's production. For the most part they do. Goyette does little more than give a solid one-note reading of Good Will Matt, but Ivonne Azurdia makes quite a funny creation out of Ben, cross-dressing her way into the audience's heart with a goofy, dude-friendly rendition.
So here are the two young, aspiring actresses playing young but very different aspiring young actors: butch, vacuous, messy, basketball-playing Ben, and intense, talented Matt. We see Matt trying to rehearse a scene from Waiting for Godot for an audition, as Ben cracks up, saying that "It's just so gay" -- which may be a case of the pot calling the kettle beige, but don't go there. And we see Matt dreaming of meeting Martin Scorsese, with Ben dreaming of meeting Daisy Fuentes. Hey, they're both impossible dreams for two nobodies. But at this point one of the play's major drawbacks becomes obvious: It depends on yesterday's tabloid humor.
When the bootylicious J.Lo gave way to buff and WASPy Jennifer Garner as the object of Ben Affleck's affection -- and Bennifer 1 was replaced by Bennifer 2 on the covers of Entertainment Weekly and all of its poor relations in the lower slopes of fanzines -- the topicality of Matt & Ben's humor began aging faster than sushi. And take this other key scene: In an amusing, surrealistic touch, Gwyneth Paltrow visits Matt's apartment while Ben is gone and pours her heart out about her troubles with Brad Pitt. He's away in Toronto making Seven Years in Tibet, so she's like Seven Years Without a Boyfriend. Of course, since those long-ago days, Brad famously has moved on from Gwyneth to Jen-from-Friends and now to Big-Lips Jolie. Get with the program! Besides, really, Seven Years in Tibet is one picture people remember even less than they do Good Will Hunting. What's next, jokes about Reindeer Games? And whether you thought Gus Van Sant's 1997 mainstream hit Good Will Hunting remains a touching little masterpiece or just irritating hooey, surely there is only so much dramatic mileage you can get out of the real-life story of its then-precocious scriptwriters.
Good Will Hunting has lines like: "Real love is only possible when you love something more than you love yourself." Overrated but genuinely sweet, Damon and Affleck's script as brought to the screen by Van Sant's uncharacteristically accessible direction scored a huge audience hit with its tale of a twenty-year-old MIT janitor and closet genius who finds success and perhaps true love against all odds.
Matt & Ben has lines like: "Adaptation is the highest form of flattery." It is steeped in envy of Damon and Affleck's success. The entire play is one big outcry: "Why, oh why, them and not us? Why those two? Surely it isn't talent." It's funny that Simon and Garfunkel's anthem to love and friendship "Bridge over Troubled Water" is crucial to the plot of Matt & Ben, because in truth the impulse behind Kaling and Withers's minor little comedy is much closer to the spirit of Morrissey's cruel "We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful." Some of the play's charm is unquestionably its sophomoric determination to insult and name names, and not just Matt and Ben. "David Schwimmer," Kaling and Withers note, "is a terrible actor with one expression, and he looks like a mushroom." Ouch. It's not pretty, but of course it's funny.
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Still, there's not much here. The action takes place in Somerville, Massachusetts, circa 1993. Matt and Ben have been trying to write a screen adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye without much success (Ben can't even spell the word lousy) when the script of Good Will Hunting, nicely typed and with their names on the title page, drops from the sky. That's it. They fight, go off on their own, fantasize about Salinger and Paltrow, fight again, and finally discover that maybe they could write such a script after all.
Matt & Ben lasts about 80 minutes and is very funny for about 40. It would have been a terrific skit on Saturday Night Live or Mad TV, no more sophomoric but also no less. Like so many of those skits, it is an iffy proposition for anything longer than five minutes and doesn't know how to wrap things up. But really iffy is its shelf life.
The original two-actor production was cast against physical type, but Mad Cat has gone the opposite way while still playing it in drag: Brunette Azurdia plays brunet Ben, while blonde (but not really blonde) Goyette plays blond ("You're not blond!" in the script) Matt. They both have their moments, particularly Azurdia in the play's most successful slapstick as Matt goes for the gold in a high school talent show with a very sincere cover of Simon and Garfunkel, only to be upstaged and humiliated by Ben's lowbrow, audience-pleasing shtick (because of Ben, the two win first place and score excellent gift certificates to Applebee's). Kimble has a funny evil turn as Paltrow, and as Salinger is at least as surprising.
The unit set by Carolina Pagani is spot-on, a sloppy pigpen of an apartment complete with a framed poster of the bomb School Ties (an early Matt and Ben screen vehicle), a Fenway Park banner, and lots of pictures. Ken Clement's rough-and-tumble fight choreography looks just right. Karelle Levy's no-nonsense costumes are a large part of the reason this play scores high on the lesbo-meter: hot young actresses, without makeup, wearing flannels and baggy sweats. Tei keeps the cast moving, and moving fast. That the show bogs down way before the end is nobody's fault but the writers'.