Arts on Real, through May 10 Running time: 1 hr, 50 min
In the halcyon days of 1996, chock-full of TLC hits and flannel shirts, two aspiring artists on the south side of Boston struggle to finish their screenplay adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye. Affable Ben finds difficulty with spelling words as tricky as "lousy," while perfectionist Matt can't see any success coming from their feeble adaptation.
Amidst the duo's questioning of their own ambition, talent, and achievements, the potential answer to all their problems drops from heaven. Or at least the ceiling. It's none other than a completed screenplay, titled none other than Good Will Hunting, written by none other than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Fancy that.
The rest of Naughty Austin's production of Matt & Ben revolves around the two would-be stars debating what they should do with this celestial offering: seize upon a success that they did not themselves create or destroy the spooky script originating from their ceiling. And if this sounds like a strange conceit, perhaps it should be noted that the magical manuscript is never explained. This is just part of Matt & Ben's absurd environment, where Gwyneth Paltrow can randomly show up, munch on a cupcake, then disappear into Ben Affleck's bedroom, never to be seen again.
More than the plot, though, it's the odd and intimate relationship between Matt and Ben that fuels the play. Now, the show does feature two women who do not bear any immediate resemblance to the celebrities they portray, which pulls away from the reality that these figures are actually Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But the script, written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, does rely on the audience's knowledge of Damon and Affleck, the drama of Bennifer, and the Bourne movies. Comedic references to the likes of Paltrow, David Schwimmer, and John Woo are evidence of this 21st century Hollywood environment.
But if these two are Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, they are caricatured permutations, the duo you might expect to see zinging it to each other on a sitcom. Matt & Ben exists through the specific characterizations of the very funny Kelley Estes and Breanna Stogner. Estes plays Matt as a holier-than-thou workaholic, intensely committed to getting ahead in life despite being a bit of a pip-squeak. Stogner's Ben is a beer-shirt-wearing, chip-snarfing dude's dude who fails to see anything wrong with the fact that he's coasted through life on his charisma. Estes' Matt relies on quips, extreme intensity, and irrational fear to produce laughs; Stogner's Ben relishes in chugging a can of soda, over-the-top imitations, and schoolboy pranks for his humor.
They're an offshoot of The Odd Couple, they work off each other well, and they're both legitimately funny: Stogner's cameo as the maniacally ditzy Gwyneth Paltrow and Estes' sourpuss of a J.D. Salinger are two of the more hilarious moments. But they're also capable of a sweetness not normally associated with Damon and Affleck, and whether that's a product of the actresses or the script, I'm not entirely sure. The two celebrities could have been portrayed in many different ways: Naughty Austin's creation is a nice blend of sweet, silly, and slapstick.
Matt & Ben isn't going to bowl you over with its insight into friendships, ambition, or Hollywood. It isn't going to add to your knowledge of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (whether you want that or not is up to you). But it certainly has more than its share of funny moments and some darn fine acting, too. And if you're anything like me, it might make you want to see another show at Arts on Real (as well as Good Will Hunting).
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