Close friendships are brutal. Add intense collaboration and somebody’s nose is likely to get broken. This very misfortune befell Brenda Withers last Friday during the 7:30 performance of Matt and Ben, a hit from last year’s Fringe Festival in which two female writer-actors, jaunty Withers and charismatic Mindy Kaling, imagine the process that resulted in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting. Here, that “process” involves a script literally falling from the ceiling into the hands of the boys, who abandon adapting Catcher in the Rye to wrangle over this otherwordly ticket out of the School Ties backwater. When frat-ified jabs escalate to fracas, a roundhouse is delivered Matt-ward. On Friday, that punch connected, sending Withers to the ER. Withers returned on Saturday, playing though the pain to uproarious effect.
Since its 2002 debut, the real Affleck has done Daredevil and two flicks with J.Lo. Damon has detoured from superhero-dom, jumping from The Bourne Identity to Gerry, a Godot-ish Gus Van Sant desert ramble. While Matt-Ben divergence might seem threatening to the relevance of this spoof, it’s actually made its personality theories all the more intriguing.
With David Warren’s direction tightening the comic timing, Withers’s portrait of Damon as fussy careerist hits hard from go. Oxford-clad Matt sternly teaches sweatsuited Ben his art (“Put your eyes on my eyes! Your eyes—my eyes!”) But Kaling’s Ben is a golden-flow stitch. A flashback to a school talent show reveals Matt strumming Simon and Garfunkel as Ben throws gang signs, freestyles, and pronounces the whole thing “gay and retarded.” Matt and Ben’s lampoons, however harsh, are affectionate, and one imagines this script falling into Kaling and Withers’s laps just as Hunting coyly availed itself to its Matt and Ben’s pre-Greenlight auteurs. And the creative struggles, excepting maybe that knuckle sandwich, have an energy that only comes from experience.