Object of Afflecktion

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B efore this week, we knew everything the average citizen needed to know about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Or so we thought. The story, as we understood it, was this: two friends from Boston write and star in a schmaltzy movie with Robin Williams. Over the next seven years, they become Hollywood royalty thanks to a few lucky breaks, a vaguely homoerotic friendship and a series of celebrity romances. The greatest generation had Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; we have Ben and Matt. Which makes us wonder, what will they call our generation years from now?


     The good news: in the meantime, we have Matt and Ben, a bioplay which recently began a six-week, off-Broadway run at New York’s PS 122. It’s the duo’s best work by far — all they provided was the inspiration.
    We decided to prepare for our evening of theatre by renting Good Will Hunting, which neither of us had actually seen. Unfortunately, none of our neighborhood video stores seemed to have it on DVD, so we substituted episodes of The Robyn Byrd Show and VH-1’s Celebrity Haircuts.

Pictured: Brenda Withers as Matt Damon (at door) and Mindy Kaling as Ben Affleck in Matt & Ben.
(Photo: Robert Zash)

    Honestly, that was probably adequate preparation. You don’t need to know much about Matt, Ben or their history to understand the play. It’s a story as old as time. Just as ancient cultures turned to mythology to explain the inexplicable, Matt and Ben posits the idea that Hollywood success is another phenomenon beholden to the whims of the gods. In Act One, the completed script for Good Will Hunting falls from the ceiling of Ben Affleck’s apartment. Both characters perceive this as fate, and debate ensues: Can they take credit for this script? Can they both take credit for it? Who gets to play the lead role? Can they coast on the probable success of this script forever?
    The hook — and you knew there had to be one — is that Matt and Ben are played by women (playwrights Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling). File under “S” for superfluous post-modern headfuck, right? Not really. The women play the roles affectionately, keeping the play safely out of rant range. Aside from a trip back in time, the play is confined to one Saturday afternoon in Affleck’s apartment, after School Ties but before the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting script was “written.” There, the duo’s past, present and conjoined futures are played out before us. We learn that Matt is intense, talented and kind of creepy. Ben is revealed to be obnoxious, popular and possibly the victim of a devastating head wound. Gwyneth Paltrow and J.D. Salinger appear to offer guidance. We learn that Ben upstaged Matt during a high-school-talent-show performance of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Ben declares his desire to meet Daisy Fuentes — you see, he really likes Latin women.
    This tendency to play it safe-and-pleasant results in a performance that’s conspicuously lacking in sexual charge you might expect. Matt and Ben‘s Ben and Matt live in a suspended, sanitized adolescence, one that involves a lot of cute practical jokes, pizza and a counterproductive admiration for Catcher in the Rye. (When we first encounter them, they’re trying to adapt Catcher for the screen. It later turns out that Salinger has already sold the rights to “a charming Chinaman,” action director John Woo.)

    The lead performers’ gender swap is cute and charming, but not particularly weighty. If anything, it’s an indication that Damon and Affleck have become such plasticine celebrities — so totally dehumanized by tabloid speculation and Hollywood ambition — that they can be replaced, for the course of an evening, by girls. We’d be tempted to make much of the possible homodynamic between Matt and Ben, but here, it’s relegated to a couple of obvious jokes: Ben dismisses all of Matt’s schemes as “gay,” like balking when Matt insists that they stare into each other’s eyes intently to practice their roles.
    This is not a play about gender, masculinity or the meaning of male friendship. Rather, it’s about bored fans and their eagerness to conjure complete identities out of E! soundbytes. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the books of Harry Turtledove, whose novels present intricately imagined alternate realities based on the slight revision of historical events. With Matt and Ben, we all know the end result, so fun lies in playing with ideas about how it came to pass. (By “the end result,” of course, we mean the release of Gigli.)
    It would be the easiest thing in the world to spend an hour and fifteen minutes tearing apart Affleck and Damon: they’re obscenely lucky, possess dubious talent, have jaws that make them look like they have some sort of glandular disease, and they’re are total sluts. Not as easy is
creating a play that’s hysterical and sharp (the duo’s "adaptation" of Catcher in the Rye
consists of Matt reading the text out loud, spelling out the hard words, while Ben
types; in a fever dream, Gwyneth Paltrow convinces Matt it’s okay to take
credit for the script, in a play on tabloid rumors that she stole the script
for Shakespeare in Love from Winona Ryder’s coffee table) without being
nasty or prurient. Not that there’s anything wrong with nastiness or prurience, we’re just saying. Matt and Ben is Before They Were Rockstars meets Choose Your Own Adventure meets Square Pegs meets Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s whip-smart and surprisingly enjoyable. We can only hope that Withers and Kaling enter the script into Project Greenlight.

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