Matt & Ben by Mindy Kaling & Brenda Withers, Directed by Zenaida Rose Smith, Arts West through October 1, 2023
The play season has begun for us in West Seattle. Actually, it begun two weeks ago - we usually catch opening night but misplaced the online tickets in a file folder, so we showed up to the theater two weeks late, but did get a great dinner at Mashiko almost-next-door-to-the-theater (and who remembered us from previous times - so I guess we're regulars now).
The story about how the movie Good Will Hunting came to be is covered in detail in the Wikipedia article. This isn't that story. It's nowhere NEAR that story. Instead this is a story about how buddies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, struggling slacker actors, suddenly had the copy of their future masterwork literally drop into their laps, and the stresses that promise of future success puts on their friendship. They are a nineties oddish-couple. Matt is the plotter, achievement-driven and control freak. Ben is the pantser, goofy sidekick, and good luck charm. They argue about stupid things. They are visited by famous spirits. They screw up, fight each other, reconcile, and are ultimately rewarded with the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. Feel good story.
And it did not work for us (yeah, the Lovely Bride agrees with me on this one - usually we get a split decision when one of us doesn't like something). Maybe its the fact that she and I have been collaborators IRL, or simply that neither one of us saw Good Will Hunting, despite its many awards. Maybe the only idea I had of Matt & Ben's personal chemistry was their turn in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Maybe we're just, you know, OLD. But the play felt unmoored (shifting between story-telling and living in the events) and at the same time predictable (a lot of sequences ending in someone saying they will leave, but not leaving). It was OK, but simply OK.
The actors, though, were really, really good. Nabilah Ahmed was an excellent Matt, recognizing his tendency to overcontrol but not able to handle when things are not organized his way. Jacquelyn Miedema has a tougher row to hoe in the goofy sidekick Ben, the lesser of the two. Matt is the brains, Ben is the heart, and the play needed the chance to show that more. Both of the characters are goofs, and the physical comedy as they fly around the cluttered apartment set are the highpoints of the play. Miedema also creates a slinky Gwyneth Paltrow and Nabilah a world-weary JD Salanger, ghosts of future and past who visit the two. The actors? Just fine.
Ultimately, this was average. I made my peace early on in the performance that this was not going to be a play about writing the movie, and Matt & Ben were at best caricatures of Damon and Affleck. But with all that stripped away, the core relationship was kinda light, and barely sustained its 90 minute run time.