By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Silly and surreal, Matt & Ben says out loud what some have long suspected: that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had help writing Good Will Hunting, the script that earned them Oscars and launched them into Hollywood superstardom. How'd that screenplay fall into the laps of the barely known young actor-writers? Playwrights Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers suggest it did exactly that, tumbling typed and bound right out of the ceiling of Affleck's cruddy Somerville, Massachusetts, apartment in 1996. (Who lived upstairs, William Goldman?)
Echo Theatre just opened a slap-up funny production of this stinging little comedy, written in 2001 by Kaling (who'd later go on to act on and write The Office) and her Dartmouth classmate Withers. The roles of Damon and Affleck are meant to be played by women. Echo's Catherine DuBord (as Matt) and Miller Pyke (as Ben) appear to have done their homework, letting us recognize instantly that button-down Damon's the smart, ambitious one and Affleck's the sloppy, egotistical idiot. Director Kelly Thomas keeps them in motion, like two puppies in too small a box, with the momentum of the physical comedy building to a comic fistfight.
We meet the boys as they're struggling to adapt Catcher in the Rye into screenplay form by doing nothing more than retyping the novel's dialogue. "Adaptation is the highest form of flattery," lunky Ben insists. Matt thinks what they're doing is plagiarism and besides, they don't have the rights to the book anyway. What they need is an original idea.
Boom, down it falls, Good Will Hunting, the perfect three-act screenplay about a Holden-like genius navigating his way into adulthood by way of Ivy League math and serious talk therapy. But who'll play the lead, Matt or Ben? They take turns reading a scene, with Ben adopting a baffling series of accents, from Cockney to Dixie. Matt knows the star-making part is his but worries that success will come too easily. "Why do we deserve this?" he asks buddy Ben. "We don't. It's a test."
The play veers into sheer fantasy with visits from Gwyneth Paltrow (Pyke in a blond wig) and J.D. Salinger (DuBord in a trenchcoat), giving the guys advice and encouragement. With a lucky assist from the hand of God, say the playwrights, the fate of two journeyman actors from Boston was sealed.