No one except the co-authors themselves knew the true story behind Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Academy Award-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting until well over five years after Oscar night 1998—not until August 21, 2002, that is, when Mindy Kaling and Brenda Wither’s Matt & Ben opened at the New York International Fringe Festival.

Here’s the scoop according to Kaling and Withers.  The screenplay for Good Will Hunting fell from the ceiling of Matt and Ben’s cluttered Somerville, Massachusetts apartment while they were working on an adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye. That’s right; it literally fell from the ceiling!

In case you find this hard to believe, the proof is all there for you to see in Kaling and Wither’s opus, now being performed for the first time ever by two men at Hollywood’s Theatre 68.

Matt & Ben, Kaling and Withers’ hilariously biting one act, is (if you haven’t yet guessed) a tongue-in-cheek explanation as to just how two soon-to-be superstars managed to write a script that beat out As Good as It Gets, Boogie Nights, Deconstructing Harry, and The Full Monty for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

Originally performed by its (female) authors, the Fringe Festival hit transferred to off-Broadway the following year and had a run with its original stars at L.A.’s Acme Comedy Theater in 2004.

Cut to sometime in 2009 when Theatre 68 members Dan Bender and Johnny Soto realized that Matt & Ben could prove a perfect vehicle for their comedic talents. Though Kaling and Withers took a little persuading, rights were finally granted for Matt & Ben to be performed with gender-appropriate actors, making the current production a veritable theatrical event—and a terrifically performed one at that.

As portrayed by Bender and Soto, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could easily come straight out of a Kevin Smith movie, and in fact a poster for Mallrats (which costarred Affleck) hangs on the wall of Matt & Ben’s messy-is-an-understatement apartment.

Bender and Soto play the world-famous best friends as a pair of longtime high school buddies who’ve hardly outgrown their teenage pastimes—junk food, Gatorade, roughhousing, beer…  You get the picture.  The only difference between Matt and Ben and your average pair of frat boys is that these two are dudes with a dream, and since (in Ben’s words) “Adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery,” their latest dream is to adapt Catcher In The Rye for the screen.  There’s just one catch (no pun intended).  Author Salinger is unlikely to give them the rights.  No wonder the arrival of the completed screenplay for Good Year Hunting comes quite literally as manna from heaven (or in this case, from the ceiling).

Among the hour long one-act’s funniest scenes are Matt & Ben working on their Catcher In The Rye adaptation with Matt reading and Ben typing lines verbatim from the novel (Gee, movie adaptations are easy!); a flashback to Matt’s high school talent show competition in which Ben’s backup singing to Matt’s self-accompanied-on-guitar rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” turns into a standup comedy routine, much to Matt’s chagrin; Ben donning a blonde wig to double as Gwyneth Paltrow circa Brad Pitt; Matt and Ben reading a scene from Good Will Hunting with Matt as Will and Ben as Minnie Driver’s character, but with a horribly wrong Cockney accent…

The laughs do go on and on until that magic night when dreams came true at the Oscars!

Under Dylan James Anderson’s spot-on direction, Bender and Soto are absolutely real as the titular duo—and absolutely hilarious.  Since Bender is an inch or two taller than Soto, lines about how much bigger Ben is than Matt get extra laughs, but there’s enough resemblance to the real deal that it’s easy to buy each actor as the character he’s portraying/spoofing. Matt & Ben would make a great sitcom or mock reality series with Bender and Soto in the leads—though the likelihood of the real Matt and Ben greenlighting it are about as likely as it would have been for J.D. Salinger to give Damon and Affleck the movie rights to his magnum opus.

Rex Lutherford’s set design is a perfect mess of an apartment, effectively lit by Charisma Dantes. Costumes and props (the latter strewn everywhere) by Sally Gardens score a thumbs up. Alice Lee operates lights and sound up in the booth.

It’s always a pleasure to see a show at Theatre 68 performed by one of the most all-around outstanding ensembles in town.  Last year’s 13 By Shanley Festival was a 2009 L.A. theatrical highlight.  Though on a considerably smaller scale, Matt & Ben merits event status event as well.

Theatre 68, 5419 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 5, 2010

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