Theater Review: Dynamic Duo Humors with Past

Matt and Ben showcases the actors’ foils before fame and fortune

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Matt (Jennifer R. Morris), left, gestures to Ben (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), who reads their script for the first time.

Writing a hit play is about as hard as finding a parking space in the Square (or so goes one playwright’s saying, I think). When the producers of the hit play Matt and Ben couldn’t find a venue in the area that would suit their playful fiction-based-on-fact one-act about the younger travails of Messrs. Damon and Affleck, they opted for a space as unlikely, and as good, as any: the Winthrop House Junior Common Room. This is where, Harvardwood lore has it, the illustrious Mr. Damon emoted his last emotion as a babyfaced undergrad actor, just before leaving to begin a now fabled campaign to write and sell Good Will Hunting, a script he began in an English department playwriting class (reportedly).

That stage (which is actually a temporary assemblage of whatever plywood happens to be on hand), and its set, a straightforward gathering of dorm room furniture and the staple Red Sox banners and Rock Bottom beer handles, may be the only piece of vérité (or Veritas, if you will) the play has in common with its historical inspiration: how in 1995, the Harvard perfectionist and his fun-loving high school buddy wrote the screenplay that launched a thousand People magazine covers. Indeed, the folklore that surrounds these two Cantabridgians is the subtext for Matt and Ben, which, with a bevy of gossipy pop-cultured winks, doesn’t even aim for accuracy. One of the play’s biggest jokes is clear as soon as the lights go up: not only do the actors bear no resemblance to their real-life counterparts, but neither are men, and the one playing Ben Affleck is black. If we did not know this trick ahead of time, not even the J.Lo-Affleck phenomenon commonly known as Bennifer (defined at urbandictionary.com as “A horrible combination that may ultimately bring about the apocalypse”) could prepare us for this surprise.

In any other play, this conceit could be part of the message that our beloved famous people aren’t actually who they appear to be, or something about identity construction etc., but fortunately Matt and Ben has lighter interests. In a turn of meta-theatrical cheekiness—and out of economic necessity—playwrights and Dartmouth grads Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers took up the acting ropes when the play first opened at P.S. 122 in New York, to rave reviews that culminated in top honors at the city’s Fringe Festival in 2002. The actor-character gimmick, embodied in the current production by the very talented Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Ben and Jennifer R. Morris as Matt, might have more to say about how scripts are turned into full-on productions, or how stars are born, than anything else. As the play tells us, accurately I should add, the real Matt and Ben demanded that their movie would not be made unless they had featured roles in it.

The single-minded drive of these two characters is evident from the start, as they flounder around Ben’s Somerville apartment trying mindlessly to adapt J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye for the big screen. Bernstine’s knuckleheaded take on Affleck as a needy and whiny dilettante who can’t get an audition, complements Morris’s nerdy portrayal of the bossy, perfectionist Damon, edging both into the pathetic—if only we can forget the Academy Award and subsequent millions of dollars. Thankfully, we can. That these wimpy characters are both totally absurd and credible is a testament to the comic virtuosity of the writers and actors, and the lively but un-adorned direction of David Warren. The performance plays on the audience’s pre-established relationship with the real life Matt and Ben, dropping references to their past, contemporary and future lives, while managing to suspend the disbelief that comes with watching their over-the-top stage versions (not to mention their real-life “versions”). The impersonations—including additional riotous send-ups of Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow—rely only partly on an impressionistic array of Matt and Ben-esque gestures, mannerisms and speech rhythms: hence the characters’ delightful confusion over which is the highest form of flattery, “imitation” or “adaptation.”

The other big joke is also dropped on our heads, and on Ben’s coffee table, as the lights go up: the script for Good Will Hunting was not the product of late-night improv sessions but a gift from the heavens. As much as this confirms our most delectable suspicion that even the real Matt and Ben can’t be for real (ok, I’m speaking for myself here), it is also the deus ex machina that sets in motion a test of friendship that jumps from one joke to the next, happily with little room for sentimentality.

Watching the two fret like babies over the script miracle is as funny as watching them fret like babies over who gets more credit, over whether Catcher in the Rye is a better idea, over whether to work together. The friendship’s defining moment is a talent show in high school (Cambridge’s Ringe and Latin) when Ben’s goofy dancing turns Matt’s serious Simon and Garfunkel rendition into a shtick. The incident defines the characters too, who haven’t much outlived that immaturity, and the play itself, whose humor could be likened to that of a very good TV sitcom: not brilliant, not incredibly sophisticated, but—considering the big gimmicks here, this is significant—not the kind that depends on cheap tricks either. And, Matt and Ben aside, perhaps the same should be said for the real Matt and Ben too.

But, then again, where’s the fun in that?

—Reviewer Alexander L. Pasternack can be reached at apastern@fas.harvard.edu.