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Matt & Ben

Mindy Kaling as Ben and Brenda Withers as Matt
(Photo © Will Beckton)
Anyone wanting to get giggly over Ben Affleck in these post-Gigli-release, pre-Jersey Girl-release days is urged to bicycle ASAP by P.S. 122 for Matt & Ben. That's where Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers are appearing as, respectively, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon in a gender-bending soufflé that they also wrote with undoubtedly as much glee as you'd expect to accompany the creation of anything this thoroughly delightful.

In the 70-minute comedy sketch -- anyone wanting or expecting it to be more is greedy
-- they supply a possible answer for one of the biggest movie puzzlers of the last decade: How did good-time guys Affleck and Damon, who were in the 1992 School Ties together and have supposedly been friends since childhood, come up with the Oscar-winning original screenplay for their impressive 1997 Good Will Hunting?

Kaling and Withers float the notion that the manuscript for the hit flick literally sailed out of the blue into a dorm-like Somerville, Massachusetts apartment where, the women imagine, the two buddies were trying to come up with a film adaptation of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Hey, there are undoubtedly many with only a fair-to-middling appreciation of Damon's and Affleck's artistic talents who'd agree that the Kaling-Withers theory is as good as any. You can almost hear either Kaling or Withers, who both went to Dartmouth, asking one another, "Where did Matt Damon and Ben Affleck find the idea for Good Will Hunting?" And you can almost hear them reply, perhaps in unison, "It probably dropped from the sky." Then you can hear one or both of them say, "We just hit on something."

They have. They've come up with a rib-tickling ribbing of celebrity, in which the shorter Kaling as the taller Affleck and the taller Withers as the shorter Damon bicker about whether or not they should trust the package suddenly tossed onto their second-hand furniture or regard the brown-paper package as a dangerous omen and forget about it. Affleck, whom the ladies see as endlessly cocky and effortlessly sexy, is happy to thank his lucky stars and forge ahead with the serendipitous gift; Damon, whom the ladies conceive of as nervous and diffident, is reluctant to jettison the in-progress Salinger project. He thinks the new and wonderful screenplay may be some kind of God-sponsored test of character he and Ben can't afford to fail.

Before the famous lads decide to go ahead, as of course we know they will, they also air other differences, some of which arise when Damon lies to Affleck about having auditioned earlier in the day for a production of Sam Shepard's Buried Child. Eventually, the pals rub each other the wrong way so vigorously that they begin throwing punches at each other the right way. (The realistic fight was coordinated by William DiPaola.) But the fracas only occurs after a few funny sequences when one or another of the actors leaves the stage and returns as part of an on-stage dream or hallucination. Even the reclusive J. D. Salinger (impersonated by Withers and sounding an awful lot like Katharine Hepburn) shows up to warn Affleck away from Catcher in the Rye. (One way to think of Matt & Ben is as a worthy companion piece to Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation.)

A reason for Matt & Ben being as consistently entertaining as it is -- aside from its spoofing a pair of People magazine mainstays -- is how cleverly it depicts the trivial suspicions, the inevitable petty lies and the jockeying for superiority that marks the friendships of young men. The manner in which this Matt and Ben goad and occasionally compliment each other is not only funny but also has a low-key pathos. That Damon feels overshadowed by Affleck in the looks department is deftly suggested, as is Affleck's worrying about Damon's being smarter. The effect that envy plays -- even, or especially, between best friends -- is set out as a source of both comedy and pathos.

Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling in Matt & Ben
(Photo © Robert Zash)
Even at a quick 70 minutes, the Matt-Ben contretemps does begin to fray a little, but Kaling and Withers are strong enough on the thesping end of things to keep up a crisp, comedic pace. Neither of them is a polished performer, and yet they have a battery of nuances -- shrugs, funny gestures, inflections, exaggerated takes -- that constantly command close attention. Also, Withers, lean and fair as Grace Kelly, and Kaling, compact and swarthy, are a sight gag of a team. They are so in tune with each other that it would be a surprise to learn they aren't best friends, just as Affleck and Damon are tub-thumped as being.

As is known, Matt & Ben was one of the highlights of last year's Fringe Festival and all the more commendable because it had nothing in common with Urinetown, which now sadly seems to have become the model for so many of the event's offerings. Directed by Kaling and Withers, their comedy was a true laugh-a-minute exercise. Since then, Matt & Ben was invited to Aspen's HBO-sponsored Comedy Arts Festival, has been tweaked and been joined by director David Warren. It's likely that the acting subtleties now rife in the play owe much to Warren's tutelage, and the piece definitely remains laugh-a-minute as somewhat gussied up by set designer James Youmans, lighting designer Jeff Croiter, costume designer Anne Sung, and sound designer Fitz Patton. Possibly, though, Matt & Ben is marginally less good than it was back then. While I did see the piece during the 2002 Fringe weeks, I don't recall it verbatim. But I have the vague sense that there were a couple of those adorably silly celebrity drop-ins that have dropped out. I could be all wrong about that, and my memory may just be playing tricks on me.

The only development, though, that could really improve on the Kaling-Withers work would be for another team to come along with a play in which the script for Matt & Ben is shown hurtling through Kaling's and Wither's Dartmouth window. Until that happens, Matt & Ben rules. Over time, it may end up faring better, revenues-wise, than Gigli and Jersey Girl combined.


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