ArtsWest’s production of Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers’ Matt & Ben is a playfully delightful time. Portraying Matt Damon and Ben Affleck before fame, Matt & Ben exaggerates the archetype that Matt is a tortured intellectual while Ben is just a silly, good-looking guy. In classic Kaling fashion, like in The Office or The Mindy Project, Matt & Ben has an ironic twist: both privileged, white, male characters are actually depicted by women and grapple with the script of Good Will Hunting literally falling into their laps. The play puts the audience through the trials and tribulations of friendship and creates a satire on the difficulties of pursuing a dream.
As soon as I walked into the venue, it was evident that Matt & Ben was a highly anticipated show– Kaling’s name was included in all advertising, and ArtsWest’s cozy waiting area was packed full during the play’s closing weekend. As a huge Kaling fan, the excitement was palpable, and only exacerbated by the incredible set design. The set captures a moment in time, grabbing at the essence of a post-college former frat boy’s apartment (immediately revealed to be Ben’s). Food wrappers and boxes are scattered around, shoes left astray, and laundry covers the floor. The mess feels perfectly intentional, which is almost paradoxical, and provided something to marvel at before the play started (even from the left wing, where I watched).
The story starts off with Matt and Ben trying to adapt “Catcher” (The Catcher in the Rye) verbatim, their simplistic view of adaptation immediately characterizing the two as a goofy pair. Matt is shown to be the pinnacle of theater kids, waiting for his breakout acting moment, while Ben, his best friend, is just playing along. The play’s main conflict is the consequence of that dynamic: Matt underestimates Ben’s intellectual capability, leading him to doubt Ben’s contribution and commitment to the Good Will Hunting script since both of them are credited for the script. Similarly, Ben has always been the cooler friend, unknowingly taking attention away from Matt in the activities he accompanied him in and therefore inadvertently leading people to underestimate Matt too.
A handful of notable elements from Good Will Hunting are carried into the play, mainly them recreating the famous “Say you don’t love me” scene from Good Will Hunting with different characters and accents. It was a hilarious twist on the scene, and the actors’ evident joy while performing it was reciprocated by the roaring audience. Actors Nabilah Ahmed and Jacquelyn Miedema, playing Matt and Ben respectively, did an incredible job in their characters and performed well as a new cast of an already-loved play, Matt & Ben.
Beyond those funny scenes, the play was often confusing. The plotlines were rather entangled, and it was difficult to tell when the characters switched from talking about The Catcher in The Rye to Good Will Hunting. Perhaps it was because of my secretly high expectations, but Matt & Ben’s script largely fell flat. When Matt and Ben were unsure if they should do something with the script of Good Will Hunting that was ominously granted to them, they were visited by a celebrity (played by the other actor) who helped each of them make a decision. Gwyneth Paltrow, a real-life girlfriend of Ben and a common celebrity pick for Kaling, visited Matt. With her elusiveness, she convinced him to take the opportunity. Meanwhile, Ben is visited by J.D. Salinger. The script is cleverly designed so the audience associates Salinger’s actress with Matt while Ben doesn’t in his argument with Matt. However, at the same time, the audience has to piece together a lot of outside knowledge, like understanding the type of people who idolize Holden Caulfield, to fully understand the jokes in the scenes. While that knowledge might have been commonplace in 2003, when the play was originally released, the pop culture references are less well-known two decades later. Therefore, a majority of the play felt dated and left me longing for something more.
Matt & Ben ends on an incredibly sweet note, with both characters finally mending their friendship and successfully releasing Good Will Hunting. The play ends with a real audio clip from the Oscars, announcing Ben Affleck and Matt Damon’s win for Best Original Screenplay (though they triumphed many more categories as well), a cute connection back to the reality the play was based on. It instills in the audience the desire to strive for their dreams and leaves them with a greater appreciation for their friendships. Despite its lapses, Matt & Ben is very creative and very fun.