Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers’ fun little supposition — that Ben Affleck and Matt Damon literally had “Good Will Hunting” fall into their laps — plays out in a tidy and comical fashion in its West Coast premiere. With a few twists of the absurd and a healthy jab at celebrity, play maintains a consistent tone and weight as it explores the Oscar-winning duo’s pre-fame days. It’s an hour of good-natured ribbing.
Contrary to Ben’s exclamation “We’re not writers, we’re actors,” strength of “Matt & Ben” is in the text. The jokes never veer too far inside — a knowledge of New England is more helpful than any sort of Hollywood ken. Plus, nothing in the script requires the characters to make a leap of faith or reset their moral compass; their portrayals are tailored and simple.
In Affleck’s Somerville, Mass., apartment in 1995, Kaling (Ben) and Withers (Matt) spar as friends and collaborators do — they mock and support each other, tear at each other’s weaknesses and try to help each other stay focused. These two aren’t so far removed from the streets or the frat house as James Youmans’ sports-themed, trash-strewn set suggests. Ben, in a running suit, provides the attitude; button-down Matt brings the book smarts and enthusiasm.
They’re plugging away at an adaptation of “Catcher in the Rye” — Matt reads, Ben types — and once a script falls from the ceiling, the fruitlessness of their labor becomes obvious. Using the script, a topnotch one at that, to get a Hollywood break is debatable but ultimately acceptable to the duo.
The two dance through issues — Matt sees it as a test in which they are to say no, Ben applies some twisted logic to say yes — and along the way encounter J.D. Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow. The two revisit their performance debut at the Rindge and Latin High School talent show featuring Matt on guitar and singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Ben providing shout-outs and some tambourine. Funny as that is, their line reading of “Good Will Hunting” is hysterical.
“Matt & Ben” won the New York Fringe Festival and became an Off Broadway hit. Considering the abundance of local theater productions that tackle the “Hollywood experience” with usually subpar material, it’s a treat to experience something so astute.