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Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers were fresh out of college when they played Ben Affleck and Matt Damon at a small theater on East Broadway in New York’s Chinatown. Their play, Matt & Ben, is an absurdist yet down-to-earth imagining of Affleck and Damon’s creative collaboration on Good Will Hunting. It launched Kaling’s writing and acting career—eventually landing her once again in the dual role of creator and star, this time to a much wider audience on the Fox-turned-Hulu sitcom The Mindy Project—in much the same way that Damon and Affleck’s own script, penned when they were barely into their twenties, made them household names in Hollywood. It’s fitting, then, that the old saw about imitation (or adaptation) being the highest form of flattery gets repeated throughout the script, and that the show opens with the Boston boys working on an adaptation of A Catcher in the Rye. There’s an art-imitating-life-imitating-art loop at work here that Affleck and Damon might call “wicked meta.”
If inspired adaptation and scrappy super-stardom by self-motivated artists are inherent aspects of this 60-minute-script’s DNA, then the endlessly engaging Tia Shearer and Katie Jeffries—who play Matt and Ben, respectively, in Flying V’s production—are the perfect double helix, attacking their roles with the type of ladyballs-out abandon that is the stuff of fearless performers.
Though Kaling said in a 2014 interview with Howard Stern that the play is not a true story and is totally un-researched (despite the presence of such Google-able fun facts as the actors’ attendance at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Damon’s acceptance to Harvard), there’s a realism to the text that makes it feel like nonfiction laced with a few surrealist plot twists to heighten the comedy and expand the dramatic universe beyond Affleck’s cramped Somerville apartment. Shearer and Jeffries play this realism with a goofy ease that engages upon arrival, but doesn’t amount to a whole lot of comic heft. Thus, in the production’s first few minutes, it feels like things will go fine, that you’ll be in capable hands, and that you’ll have a few chuckles. Period.
Then, Gwyneth Paltrow (a bewigged Jeffries) bulldozes into the apartment to give Damon a taste of his would-be Hollywood lifestyle, if he’d only have the courage to ditch his talentless but super hunky friend. Jeffries’ parody of the consciously-uncoupled, self-obsessed star is a scream, a broad but delicious dose of ridiculousness (when she’s offered food, she demurs: “I never touch the stuff.”) Shearer likewise plays an absurdist scene to pleasing effect: She shows up as J.D. Salinger to warn Affleck off of relinquishing artistic rights. Shearer commits fully to a detailed portrait of the reclusive artist that is straight out of Vaudeville. It’s a blast to behold such a unique take on the shut-in scribe.
The main conceit of the play is that the script for Good Will Hunting was not actually written by Damon and Affleck, but fell from the sky with their names on it. It’s a clever way to look at the collaborative process, and to shine a light on the mysteries of how writers write and how certain projects succeed in Hollywood while most never see the light of day. It’s hard not to see the ring of truth and emotional resonance in the more petty squabbles in Matt & Ben, and to be at least a little impressed that the real-life Damon and Affleck were able to keep hashing things out. Perhaps even more impressive, and even more in keeping with Flying V’s espoused mission (to produce work that embraces high concept without sacrificing the “emotional resonance of real characters in intimate moments,”) is Kaling’s real-life artistic persistence at a time when, as she said in the Stern interview, “there were no parts for someone who looked like me.” Shearer and Jeffries step out of character at curtain call to make a few announcements about the company, but more importantly to cap the gender-bending hour with a simple sentiment for our times: “love is love.” Indeed.
The play runs through June 26 at The Writer’s Center. 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. $20. flyingvtheatre.com.