Matt & Ben at the Institution Theater

Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers use Damon and Affleck to create a hilarious case study in how Hollywood murders friendship

Megan Sherrod (l) and Cristina Flores in Matt & Ben (Courtesy of Penny Dime Productions)

If there's one thing I learned in Hollywood, it's this: Sometimes the quickest way to destroy a friendship is to create art you believe in with someone you care about. Especially if said art seems awesome or lucrative or like a once-in-a-lifetime happening.

Suddenly, people get interested. People with money. People with influence. People who could make a couple of nobodies like you into serious somebodies. Those people start making really, really big promises, and all of the things you and your friend set out to accomplish in the City of Angels actually start happening. You both feel justified living in a shitty apartment and leading dances at bar and bat mitzvahs (when you're not at your catering job). Dinner and drinks are free. Everything you've ever wanted to hear is being said. The Hollywood roller coaster is tick, tick, ticking its way up to crest the top of the first big drop, and you're both strapped in for the ride of your life. Nothing could bring two besties closer, right?

Wrong. Here's what really happens: The success (sometimes even the idea of success) starts eroding the foundations of your friendship. You go from co-conspirators to competitors. Friends become frenemies. Each of you somehow convinces yourself that you are the real talent. The dreams you had of being a team of kickass scrappy art gods crumble as the narrative shifts from "we" to "me." Desperation grows, the spotlight shrinks, and it seems certain that, much like the Highlander, there can be only one.

Matt & Ben is an imagined retelling of the beginning of Matt Damon's and Ben Affleck's Tinseltown careers in which the completed script for Good Will Hunting falls from Ben's apartment ceiling as the two Hollywood hopefuls are working on their latest collaborative effort: an adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Damon, ever the perfectionist, has just been cast in Buried Child (a fact he is hiding from Affleck), and bro'ier-than-thou Ben has put all of his eggs into the Catcher in the Rye basket – even though it's a Hail Mary. After the dynamic duo realize the value of what has literally fallen into their laps, the resentment starts building, bromance is left by the wayside, and hilarity ensues.

Penny Dime Productions puts an honest effort into this Hollywood tale of friendship, betrayal, and junk food cravings. Megan Sherrod's Damon is the quintessential uptight artist and plays an apt foil to Cristina Flores' bro-tastic Affleck. There are moments in the show when the women seem a little too self-aware, and the fight scenes are a bit clunky, but the script (written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers) is so pee-your-pants funny that LOLing is unavoidable, even if it invokes ghosts of camaraderie past.

While extremely fun, the script fully conveys the way a ticket to the big time can ruin a good team, sending the creative relationship into a downward spiral. Faced with movie star-level success, you and your partner find you don't talk as much anymore. When you do talk, it's only about the project you're working on together. You still wax poetic on what the future will be, you brag about your artistic legacy or the Oscar speech or the Maserati or the side-by-side houses in the hills, but now the idea of living anywhere in this albatross' general vicinity has become annoying and juvenile. You keep the new auditions and side meetings secret. You tell yourself it's because you don't want to hurt feelings, but in reality you know that this parasitic asshole (who used to be your pal) currently has your coattails in a kung fu grip, and you're lying in wait for the moment when you can sweep the leg and shake him off. These experiences (and many more) are mirrored in the play, and when they come to a head, will Affleck and Damon find themselves blessed beyond their wildest dreams, or will the curse of Hollywood prosperity sink their once buoyant friendship? Of course, we all know the answer to that, but as Matt & Ben reminds us in its retelling of their rise to Hollywood royalty, it's less about the destination and more about the journey.

Matt & Ben

The Institution Theater Clubhouse, 3708 Woodbury
Through Jan. 21
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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Institution Theater, Penny Dime Productions, Megan Sherrod, Cristina Flores, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Mindy Kaling, Brenda Withers, Good Will Hunting

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