Matt & Ben

Jam Theatricals

at Theatre Building Chicago

Baggage Claim

Bailiwick Repertory

Here’s a great idea for a play: Two men who’ve known each other all their lives are locked in combat over a screenplay that could make their fortunes. One is an arrogant, dismissive buttoned-down preppie, the other a swaggering slob who makes up in raw charisma what he lacks in book smarts.

Gosh, I love True West. And I suspect that Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the creators of Matt & Ben, do too: they have more than a passing familiarity with Sam Shepard’s 1980 classic. Their satirical off-Broadway hit even name-drops the leathery scribe. They added a dash of The Odd Couple to Shepard’s basic story, then blew it up to cartoon proportions by recasting the battling duo as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck pre-Good Will Hunting. But in this viciously goony 2002 comedy, the two don’t hammer away at a screenplay in a tequila-enhanced fog the way Shepard’s Austin and Lee do. Instead the script is a gift from above: it falls, neatly wrapped in brown paper, from the ceiling of Affleck’s grungy Cambridge postcollegiate pad while the boys are engaged in a desultory attempt at adapting The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe that is how Good Will Hunting arrived: neither Affleck nor Damon has penned anything since their maiden effort, which won them an Oscar, and the scripts they’ve chosen for Project Greenlight have been decidedly subpar.

In Kaling and Withers’s account, Damon is the hypercompetitive brains of the outfit who fondly remembers the days of his high school talent shows, when he was “doin’ Shylock and rackin’ up gift certificates to Applebee’s.” Affleck is the good-natured hipster wannabe fond of creating words like “chillaxin'” (to describe that state of being between chilling and relaxing). None of this would have risen above the level of a better-than-average Saturday Night Live sketch, however, if Withers and Kaling hadn’t played Matt and Ben themselves. The Dartmouth grads originated the roles in New York, under David Warren’s direction; later Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Jennifer R. Morris replaced them in the off-Broadway production and are now performing in the touring show (also directed by Warren).

The two bear absolutely no resemblance to the actors they play, and in fact seem to have been deliberately cast against type. Bernstine, who plays Affleck, is short and African-American while Morris as Damon is lanky and Caucasian. But the point of the performances isn’t drag-king verisimilitude–it’s deconstruction. The script reduces Matt and Ben to grasping, self-centered whelps who desperately want to be famous and don’t particularly care what it takes to get there.

In real life, Affleck and Damon are moderately gifted actors and writers who joined the ranks of celebrity royalty on the basis of a made-for-Hollywood backstory: two childhood friends hang on to their dreams and create a feel-good fable about a surly blue-collar genius. The thing is, it’s almost impossible to imagine the Affleck-Damon success story working for real if they’d been two women. The conventional wisdom is that the surest way for an actress to win an Oscar is to play not a genius but a hooker, a nun, or a disabled person. Which is why it’s so delicious that a pair of out-of-work female writer-actors like Kaling and Withers have made their mark by skewering the prematurely elevated likes of Matt and Ben. It’s doubly satisfying, almost downright radical, to see two women play them with such a casual, unapologetic air of entitlement–and to let loose with the kind of brawling that exists mostly in Shepard’s universe.

At a brisk 65 minutes, Matt & Ben doesn’t spend a lot of time fleshing out the characters. But as might be expected, there are plenty of snarky–and deadly funny–pop-culture allusions. David Schwimmer gets dissed, and Bernstine plays Gwyneth Paltrow as an insecure ingenue obsessed with her weight (“I don’t touch the stuff,” she says of food). Morris plays J.D. Salinger, who shows up to inform Affleck that he won’t be giving him the rights to Catcher in the Rye since he’s already signed them over to Hong Kong action-flick auteur John Woo. A flashback to Matt and Ben singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” in a high school talent contest (alluding to another famous pair of childhood friends) shows the earnestly crooning Damon upstaged by Affleck’s tambourine shaking and shout-outs to friends in the audience.

Early in the play, as the two wrestle with Catcher in the Rye, Damon asks Affleck, “Doesn’t it bother you that the best you can do is an imitation of someone else’s work?” I doubt the real-life Matt and Ben were bothered at all by questions of authenticity. (Indeed, large portions of Good Will Hunting owe obvious debts to other films. Robin Williams’s shrink is basically a shorter, more hirsute version of Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People–I think they even wore the same sweaters.) So there’s no reason to fault Kaling and Withers for using a well-known story as fodder for their own success. The two women may turn out to be one-trick ponies, but in this intelligent assault on the hollow quest for celebrity they’ve largely justified the hype.

Honest-to-god friendship of the female variety is the theme of Corri Feuerstein and Jenny Vilim’s autobiographical two-hander, Baggage Claim, now in a late-night run under Jen Ellison’s unassuming direction. The two women, who met at ImprovOlympic, have undeniable charm and smarts, but the piece is tentative in its aims and its structure.

Oddly, the creators seem content to describe themselves as archetypal females: Vilim is the sunny, smiling blond while Feuerstein plays the troubled brunette whose wisecracks are attempts to hide her pain. They’re better at explaining the chemistry they share and the yin/yang nature of their friendship than they are at exploring issues of female identity, resorting to cliched devices like fashion-magazine quizzes and Barbies–mounds of which occupy the apron of the stage. And I think it’s time for a moratorium on performers playing children to remind us of a more innocent time.

Feuerstein’s and Vilim’s occasional forays into the audience to reveal embarrassing moments are winsome but don’t really deepen our understanding of who they are or why it’s important to listen to them. These writer-performers are too self-effacing for this to be called a vanity project, but it’s doubtful that the show will hold much interest for anyone who doesn’t know them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jason Lindberg, Kami K. Sanders.