In his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman argues that American culture is becoming dumber and dumber—plays like Matt & Ben suggest that we have entered the afterlife.
Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers. Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara. At the Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge, MA, through August 14.
By Bill Marx
It’s pleasant to know that back in 1996 Ben Affleck lived in an apartment in Somerville, MA, a town that is also home to The Arts Fuse. But that’s about all the pleasure served up by the brain dead Matt & Ben, a stillborn comedy sketch that comes off as a dumb and dumber version of The Odd Couple manned by clueless adolescents. Call the play Don & Buzz or Morty & Abe and nobody would care or laugh, but all an opportunistic playwright need to do to garner a production is name a couple of stereotypes after Hollywood stars/friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, pop in some biographical factoids, and toss in inexplicable cameos by Gwyneth Paltrow and J. D. Salinger. Our celebrity-crazed appetites will provide the empty chuckles.
Dramatists Mindy Kaling (Kelly Kapoor in The Office) and Brenda Withers don’t even bother to come up with a plot, let alone conflict or literate comic lines. In this flimsy fantasia, Ben is handsome, charming, but as thick as a brick: he wants to adapt Catcher in the Rye for the big screen by copying Salinger’s dialogue verbatim out of the book. He doesn’t know Sam Shepard is a playwright and has only the rudimentary idea of what a screenplay is. Matt is helping him, reluctantly, with the Catcher project, reading the novel’s lines and spelling out the words. Matt is ambitious and methodical, confident that he is smarter (who wouldn’t be?) and more talented than the dull-witted, spur-of-the moment Ben.
So far so nothing; then the finished script for Good Will Hunting, the pair’s Oscar-winning 1997 screenplay, drops out of the sky. (Couldn’t God whip up something better?) Most of the 70-minute play revolves around whether the pair can overcome their childish resentments (high school talent show betrayal) and jealousies (Matt has landed a stage role and kept it a secret, which results in a fight in which the pair trash the trashy apartment) to accept their good fortune. The inevitable unconvincing sentimental hymn to togetherness follows.
Realizing that the scriptus-ex-machina idea is lighter-than-air, the playwrights bring in Paltrow to deliver stale jokes about anorexic stars (“Food? Never heard of the stuff”) and David Schwimmer (!), then toss in a staccato J. D. Salinger to tell Affleck that he will never get the rights to Catcher in the Rye. Nothing witty or substantial is made out of these cameos: the play is content to barely skim the superficial, with Matt and Ben—lo-cal caricatures—tossing food around, talking about fat asses, discussing Matt’s lack of height, joking about Ben’s brother, and acting like boring goofs.
Actresses Philana Mia (Matt) and Marianna Bassham (Ben) generally camp up their roles as boy-men—nobody scratches their balls, but that is the only cliche the performers miss. I admired Bassham in John Kuntz’s Hotel Nepenthe (which was Moliere compared to this script), but her inventiveness is wasted in the one-note role of Ben—no subtlety or imagination is called for, only behavioral tics and shameless mugging. There is no attempt by the actresses to look or sound like Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and director M. Bevin O’Gara is content to push everything along at the same faux-farce rhythm.
But for some Matt & Ben amounts to “clever satire”—look at Dan Aucoin’s review for the Globe. Those who agree please post a comment. Satire is supposed to make a point, and the point of Matt & Ben is . . .?
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.