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Matt & Ben

In their barbed but good-natured satire of Hollywood hotcakes Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, funny femmes Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers pose the burning question about those longtime best buds. No, not <I>that</I> question -- the one about how these not-noticeably literary movie stars managed to write "Good Will Hunting."

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Matt Damon - Brenda Withers Ben Affleck - Mindy Kaling

In their barbed but good-natured satire of Hollywood hotcakes Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, funny femmes Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers pose the burning question about those longtime best buds. No, not that question — the one about how these not-noticeably literary movie stars managed to write “Good Will Hunting,” a film that won the kids an original screenplay Oscar in 1997 and catapulted them into stardom. The only conceivable answer: The screenplay dropped from the heavens (or at least from the ceiling of Ben’s messy apartment) as a blessing (or possibly a curse, but certainly an ethical challenge) conferred in all irony by the laughing gods above.

There’s no telling what this playful fantasy looked like when Kaling and Withers, themselves best friends and roommates, unveiled it at last year’s New York Intl. Fringe Festival (where it won the award for best overall production), or in a subsequent appearance at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colo. But the hand of Broadway helmer David Warren (“Holiday,” “Summer and Smoke”) gives it a certain professional gloss.

There is a discernible visual pattern to the music posters, pizza containers and assorted collegiate clutter of the crummy digs in the working-class Boston suburb where the young actors are holed up, plotting their future careers. Better yet, the keep-it-moving pacing imposes an illusion of structure on the loose-jointed story of how they struggled to hang on to their friendship while chasing fame, fortune and gorgeous women.

But it’s no good pretending that a pro production team can transform a couple of tyro talents into polished performers. More amusing on paper than they are in person, tall, gangly Withers projects an air of petulant intelligence onto the supposedly brainy and sensitive Matt, while short and bouncy Kaling captures the grinning narcissism of taller, prettier, dumber Ben. But that’s as far as they go with their sassy caricatures. As actors, they barely stir the air when ambitious drives and driving egos — not to mention serious ethical issues — threaten the guys’ friendship.

Withers can get a laugh with an easy line like “It’s stealing,” when Matt, the more dedicated artist, challenges Ben on his intellectually lazy scheme to rip off J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for a screenplay. But she brings no more depth to her characterization once Matt caves to temptation and gives up a role in Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” to promote himself in “Good Will Hunting” — “so long as my name comes first.”

In the same way, Kaling is plenty cute when she’s sending up Ben’s lousy screenwriting efforts and leaden acting style. “He’s got a temper,” says Ben, in ludicrous defense of his clumsy, furniture-destroying efforts to play Will Hunting. But Ben stays the same goofy Ben even after he catches his supposedly morally superior friend in a compromising lie. And neither performer is up to the acting challenge when some figment of the guys’ imagination — like Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger — makes a surprise appearance to add more comic perspective to their boyish follies.

“Plus ca change,” the more these performances remain “la meme,” a limitation in range that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying the show’s inventive premise and flashing surface humor. Nonetheless, it undercuts the genuinely provocative issues — from the ethics of authorship to the strain of ambition on loyalty and friendship — that Withers and Kaling, as playwrights, were brave enough to tackle and clever enough to carry through to the end.

Although logic dictates that they should hand over their pretty baby to bigger players, that’ll probably never happen if Matt and Ben remain their guides.

Popular on Variety

Matt & Ben

P.S. 122; 100 seats; $25

Production: A Victoria Lang, Pier Paolo Piccoli, Stephen Pevner and Jason Hsiao presentation of a new comedy in one act, written and performed by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, previously presented at the 2002 New York Intl. Fringe Festival. Directed by David Warren.

Creative: Set, James Youmans; costumes, Anne Sung; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Kelly Varley. Opened Aug. 7, 2003. Reviewed Aug. 6. Running time: 1 HOUR, 5 MIN.

Cast: Matt Damon - Brenda Withers Ben Affleck - Mindy Kaling

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