MATT & BEN AMUSES BUT OVERCHARGES
Short Show Skewering Somerville’s Favorite Sons Scintillates SuperficiallyBy Philip Burrowes
Written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers
Starring Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Jennifer R. Morris
Directed by David Warren
Produced by Andrew Arthur and James Patton
At Winthrop House JCR, Harvard University through Nov. 6
For more info call the Harvard Box Office (617)-496-2222
Aside from “Real Genius,” “Good Will Hunting” is the movie most attached to the MIT mythos. It’s reassuring to think the Institvte so inspires intellectual achievement that our janitors are smarter than us. The irony is that its co-writer and star Matt Damon attended rival Harvard, while co-writer Ben Affleck barely matriculated to college at all. For Hollywood, confusion surrounded how two young actors from middle-class backgrounds wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay about the interaction between Southie and cranial Cambridge. Matt & Ben purports to unravel this mystery through a study of contrasts. Not only does it make little sense that these two wrote an award-winning movie, but why are they collaborators at all?
We first see Matt and Ben in their room. In fact, we only see the actresses portraying Matt and Ben, and only in the stage-wide room. There are no set changes, and any costume changes involve only one actor at a time, giving the other an opportunity to chew the limited scenery. Jennifer Morris -- a tall,lanky brunette -- plays the stocky, short Matt Damon. Quincy Bernstein is the least likely Ben Affleck you could probably imagine. Each woman does a horrible Boston accent, and they fare no better in their surprise turns as other roles. Yet by the end of the play (and it is barely an hour) any doubts you have about their ability to accurately embody the iconic actors is overcome by their overacting. Overexaggerated movements and facial expressions make the characters belong to Bernstine and Morris rather than their namesakes. Considering that the authors Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers originally performed the roles themselves, this is probably an intended interpretation of the text.
If this sounds too goofy, you should know from the setup that it’s not a serious story. While adapting “Catcher in the Rye” into a screenplay -- Matt reads while Ben types --the script for “Good Will Hunting” “falls from the sky” with their names on it. Falling from the sky actually entails a short blackout while one of the actors picks up the script and drops it, but it’s an in-dorm theater, so what do you expect? The rest of the conflict revolves around what to do with the script with the conceit that Matt and Ben’s real-life personas already mirrored the roles each would play in Hunting. Matt is talented and bookish, while Ben is the charming but ultimately inferior friend who holds him back, but why shouldn’t Ben get to play Will? Or maybe they shouldn’t do it all, since they didn’t really write the story.
Sometimes the play treads into transcendent territory, whether about the industry or friendship. Most of the time, however, it settles for amusing us. It does so even at the expense of a coherent narrative. While not quite a string of vignettes, a good chunk of the story consists of audience-addressed anecdotes from the duo’s days at Cambridge Rindge and Latin that further exemplify how Ben is a mental frat-boy while Matt is a selfish workaholic. Among those is the revelation that they rehearsed a reading of “Waiting forGodot” in high school, with Matt of course as Vladimir and Ben as Estragon. The parallels between the staging of Godot and “Matt & Ben” are tempting, but the meta-adaptive aspects of the plot could just as well mirror the authors’ attempts at writing the play itself. Except Kaling and Withers prefer pop-culture grounded potshots at Affleck’s expense to either the sublime absurdity of Beckett or a debate surrounding epistemological implications for originality.
Not to say that what the playwrights achieve isn’t notable. Their play is indeed humorous, whether in verbal exchanges regarding the script or the physical comedy of the flashbacks. It also at least attempts to finish the framing device of what to do with script with a deft act of legerdemain made possibleby the distraction of a “J. D. Salinger” appearance. We are given reasons why the two would stay buddies, why they would accept the script as theirs, and why Matt would play Will, but they’re not very satisfying ones. One would think Kaling and Withers simply ran out of entertaining material so they decided to end the play.
You might say there’s not much you can do with a two-actor play, that even Beckett had to start throwing in random characters in Godot. From two-man tales like “Topdog/Underdog” to one-woman shows like Elaine Strich at Liberty, the most highly acclaimed small-cast works can be over two hours long. Stritch’s tour at the Wilbur Theatre ran from 25 to 65 dollars while the New Repertory Theatre is preparing the Boston premiere of Topdog in February, and its tickets run from 30-60 (with student discounts). “Matt & Ben” weighs in at 15 dollars for Harvard students, but 25 for everyone else. Even considering that Bernstine and Morris consitute the New York cast and that the simplicity of the stage directions suggest you don’t lose anything with a small stage, this still means you’re paying top-draw prices for a silly show written by a couple of recent Dartmouth grads, a play that may be more about the authors than “Good Will Hunting” was about Matt and Ben.