Matt and Ben

Fame is fleeting, and so is the fun here.

This is how the New York Times's 2003 review of Matt and Ben begins: "Is there anyone who isn't sick of Ben Affleck, with his J.Lo and his Gigli and the salaams he elicits when he deigns to show up in Project Greenlight?" But therein lies my problem with this play: I'm not sick of Ben Affleck. I wasn't even in 2003. I'd watched Good Will Hunting, which struck me as interesting but overrated, and was aware that he and Matt Damon received an Oscar for the screenplay. Beyond that, I never gave either of them a second's thought. But apparently Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling, who were their classmates at Dartmouth, did — and they were very, very jealous. So jealous that they wrote a play — "deliciously spiteful," the Times says — in which Matt and Ben, played by Kaling and Withers themselves in New York, are revealed as dumb and untalented dopes who haven't, in fact, written Good Will Hunting at all. The script simply falls from the ceiling of Ben's grubby apartment, landing amid a crush of crumpled chip packages and half-empty soda bottles as the actors wrestle with an entirely different creative project: a screen adaptation of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye — which Ben assumes will require little more than simply typing up Salinger's dialogue.

Ben is a goof and Matt a more thoughtful and serious thespian, but they're both hopelessly out of it, and there's about enough material in their wrangling and reminiscing to sustain a ten-minute Saturday Night Live skit. Unfortunately, Matt and Ben goes on for over 75 minutes. The action is punctuated by two visitations: one from Gwyneth Paltrow, the other from J.D. Salinger. Gwyneth drifts around, ecstatically licking the icing from a stray cupcake and dispensing advice on success to Matt, pausing only to admire a photograph of Ben. This scene at least genuflects to what we know — or think we know — about the real-life actress, but the Salinger bit is just plain weird. If you're going to be "deliciously spiteful," shouldn't you at least dish some dirt — about the author's reclusiveness, for example, or his involvement with far younger women, his maniacally controlling behavior or his weird dietary habits? Here, he's just a ludicrous clown figure who likes chocolate pudding.

Missy Moore (left) and Laura Norman are Matt and Ben.
Missy Moore (left) and Laura Norman are Matt and Ben.

This Miners Alley production is interesting to watch for one reason: It offers an almost perfect object lesson in two disparate styles of acting. At dinner before the show, I'd been talking with my friend about the differences between actors who try to get inside their roles and really think and feel what their characters are thinking and feeling, and those who mimic external traits. Laurence Olivier would have classified himself as the latter. He always began by contemplating the physicality of the role, and he loved sporting wigs and false noses, playing with costumes, affecting different voices and ways of moving. When he made Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman, he supposedly mocked Hoffman for staying up all night in order to get in the mood for his role: "My dear boy, you look awful. Why don't you try acting?" But if you read what Olivier said about his own work, it's obvious he used memories and imagery just as Method actors do. Asked about the great cry he gave as Oedipus Rex before blinding himself — a cry that some audience members remembered years later — he said he'd thought about trapped foxes and white-furred Arctic ermines caught on salt traps by the tongue.

You can tell that Laura Norman, who plays Ben, has imagined her way into the role. She's given thought to the nature of maleness, or at least a certain kind of overgrown teenage maleness, studying the way these guys move, grimace and play, taking what she's figured out into her own voice and body. Her Ben is neither a man nor a woman playing a man, but someone believable, likable and sort of androgynous. If Missy Moore had made Matt as specific, the evening might have worked. But Moore just lowers her voice and walks in a vaguely male way, and while she's sometimes funny and effective, the stereotype eventually wears as thin as the script.

 
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