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A CurtainUp Review

Matt & Ben
By Jerry Weinstein

He's the playwright of Buried Child. Won the Pulitzer. (pause) It doesn't matter. It didn't happen. --- Matt
Oh! He's that wrinkly guy from The Pelican Brief. ---Ben
(Matt schools Ben on Sam Shepard)
Brenda Withers as Matt (at door), Mindy Kaling as Ben
Brenda Withers as Matt (at door), Mindy Kaling as Ben
(Photo: Robert Zash)
When Good Will Hunting captured an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay it catapulted the duo of Matt Damon & Ben Affleck overnight from journeymen into a Brand. Given their youth, their win was viewed as a monumental accomplishment in the manner of a scientific discovery, on par with an Olympic medal, or a successful military campaign. Until that day the duo had experienced modest success in small films, but the Academy Awards allowed them to literally enter the homes of the nearly 1 billion viewers who tuned into the telecast. Overnight, the pair became a commodity and Hollywood signed onto the "Matt & Ben business."

Cut to: During the summer of 2001, Dartmouth grads Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers were holed up in their air-conditioned apartment in Astoria, Queens, trying to beat the heat. They noticed that Ben Affleck was on the cover of nearly every tabloid that arrived in their mailbox or followed them home from the newsstand. Apart from Affleck's current J. Lo imbroglio, he was, ironically then, at the height of his powers while away from Hollywood, during his turn at rehab. Not functional, but ubiquitous.

Kaling and Withers soon began to improv Matt & Ben around their apartment, while familiarizing themselves with the lives of their storied counterparts. They were absorbing the gossip, including apocryphal stories such as the one that had William Goldman, an eminence gris among screenwriters, giving Good Will a final polish. They had shown no evidence of promise, least of all as writers, so went the thinking. How could such a script spring from them? Perhaps, clucked not a few, the script had fallen from the sky. It is this premise that Kaling and Withers mine to maximum effect.

Rave reviews and sold out performances aside, this retrofitted 2002 Fringe Festival audience winner (directed with temerity by David Warren, who divined such pathos from the Collyer Brothers in The Dazzle last year) manages to survive the hype and succeed on its own terms.

The brisk one-act Matt & Ben opens as the pair, circa 1997, are trying to write the script that will launch their fame - no, not Good Will Hunting, but an adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. It's a double visual joke that the two female playwrights have cast themselves to act the boys and that they are also playing against physical type. Although she is a compact Indian-American, Mindy Kaling renders us rangy Ben, while the wiry Wasp that is Brenda Withers projects a stolid Matt. Taking dramatic license, they've cast Matt & Ben as polar opposites. While Matt hones his craft and wishes to be a thespian, it is plain that Ben wants to be a movie star, and that his ambition does not include much time away from beer busts and mooning over "Latin girls." (Cue guffaws from audience.)

Mocking the oft-employed device of the deus ex machina, the script of Good Will Hunting does indeed drop from the skies, albeit through Ben's living room ceiling. Following this absurd turn of events, the play really finds its groove.

While the two argue whether or not to take credit for work that isn't theirs -even though both their names are listed on the title page--we are presented with interspersed scenes where Matt and Ben are individually visited by a character that either embraces or refutes fame. While Ben is out shooting hoops, Matt receives a visitation from Gwyneth Paltrow (who falls for Ben's headshot). Later on, while Matt is furtively auditioning, Ben receives J.D. Salinger, who churlishly declines to grant the boy wonders permission to adapt his classic coming of age novel. These interludes are actually quite witty, and allow us to see Kaling and Withers stretch as actors, while coming back to rest as their main quarry. If anything, Mindy Kaling proves that being blonde is a state of mind, not a shade of Loreal.

Whatever the future holds for Msgrs. Damon and Affleck, life in a fishbowl has its perks and its downsides. It's an unexpected thrill when those who have come to bury Caesar change course. Our faith in Matt & Ben is restored in the play's denouement; they actually earn our respect. Kaling and Withers have done something here: in a play satirizing both fame and "Matt & Ben" they have paid tribute to their friendship and their artistic efforts. Their friendship as spectacle may be commodified for public consumption, but even under such scrutiny, the friendship endures.

Perhaps there is an ecology of Tinseltown where fame is an oxygen to the flames of an actor's career. Too little, they toil in obscurity. Too much, and the media circus leads to overkill and, ultimately, backlash. It cannot be lost on its authors that the runaway success of Matt & Ben both undermines their deft take on fame, while setting them up for a fall.

Matt & Ben
Written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers
Directed by David Warren
Cast: Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers
Set Design: James Youmans
Costume Design: Anne Sung
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Fitz Patton
Running time: 65 minutes, no intermission
P.S. 122, 150 First Avenue (at East 9th) 212/ 277-5288
Monday-Thursday, 8:00 PM; Friday-Saturday, 7:00 PM & 10:00 PM; open-ended run
Ticket prices: $25 ($18 with Student ID)
Reviewed by Jerry Weinstein based on September 11, 2003 performance.
Last NY performance 5/30/04

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