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It takes two to make a thing go right – ‘Matt & Ben’

October 26, 2022
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It takes two to make a thing go right – ‘Matt & Ben’ (photo courtesy Penobscot Theatre Company/Bill Kuykendall)

BANGOR – One of Hollywood’s favorite friendships is currently being brought to life at the Bangor Opera House.

“Matt & Ben” is the latest production from Penobscot Theatre Company. The show – an examination of the friendship between Matt Damon and Ben Affleck penned by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers – is directed by Lavina Jadhwani and stars Jen Shepard and Tina Muñoz Pandya as the titular pair. That’s right – these two dudes are being played by women. The show runs through November 6.

The play is an exploration of an early time in the lifelong friendship of these two men, a time before they were magazine cover-gracing Oscar-winning movie stars. A time when they were just a couple of guys starting out on a journey toward what they hoped would be fame. A time when the future was both frighteningly unclear and seemingly limitless.

All of it refracted through a satiric lens of feminine energy, magical realism and underlying absurdity, courtesy of the talented twosome in the lead. It is frantic and funny and utterly bizarre, a strange pop cultural amalgam that celebrates and skewers these men both in terms of who they are in that moment and who they might eventually become.

We’re in a slovenly apartment somewhere in Boston in the early-to-mid ‘90s. We meet Ben Affleck (Tina Muñoz Pandya) and Matt Damon (Jen Shepard) as they struggle to collaborate on a screenplay. Their subject? An adaptation of J.D. Salinger’s classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Both are in their mid-20s and have had a modicum of success as actors; however, they also seem a bit frustrated with an inability to progress further and faster in their respective careers.

There’s a real fraternal vibe at play – these guys have clearly been friends for a LONG time – but there’s also some tension. Matt is the more openly ambitious; he’s something of a perfectionist and not at all convinced of his pal’s seriousness. Ben is more gregarious and go-with-the-flow – heck, Matt credits him with the coining of the term “chillax” – content to see where the world takes him.

But when the world delivers something extraordinary, these two find themselves utterly unsure as to what to do next. From out of nowhere, a package drops from the sky. Inside? A completed screenplay. The title page reads “Good Will Hunting.” The listed authors? Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

And it’s good. REALLY good.

Our heroes have no idea what to do next. Where did this script come from? What are they supposed to do with it? Why were they chosen for this gift? Did they actually write it? If so, when? And how?

What follows is a madcap tug of war as Matt and Ben struggle to decide what to do with this gift … or is it a curse? All the while, the underlying tensions in their own relationship begin bubbling to the surface, with each taking aim at the perceived flaws and foibles of the other. And soon, they find themselves confronted with the biggest question of them all: what matters more – fame or friendship?

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that “Matt & Ben” is, well … weird. From the central conceit on down, there’s a lot of strangeness that unfolds on the stage over the course of the show’s relatively brief runtime – approximately 70 minutes, with no intermission. And honestly, that weirdness is a big part of the abundant joy that permeates the entire proceedings. It’s fun – and funny – precisely because it is all so sweetly, sharply strange.

Does all this sound ridiculous? OF COURSE it does – the ridiculousness is the point. The combination of slapstick physicality and pop culture ephemera and heartfelt nostalgia and genuine interpersonal connection should be chaos, but it isn’t; everything is bound together by the endless wellspring of joyful affection at the show’s (very large) heart.

As to that central conceit – it really works. By having these two twentysomething men played by women, a whole world of perspective unfolds before us. It’s interesting to see a hardcore bro energy rendered by way of female performers; striking the balance between the two seemingly disparate vibes shouldn’t be as easy as it looks.

Much of the credit for that appearance of ease goes to director Lavina Jadhwani, who navigates the many different demands of this script with clarity of purpose and a keen eye for laughs. Finding a way to maintain the breakneck pacing and high energy of the show without losing the nuances in tone is key to the success of a show like this – too frenetic, the connection is lost; too languid, the laughs dwindle – but Jadhwani finds the sweet spot.

Granted, finding that spot was likely made considerably easier by the excellent work being done by the cast. Pandya plays Ben as a sensitive meathead, a charming coaster of a dude whose frat-boy aura is offset by an underlying sweetness. In her hands, he’s a guy who manspreads even when he’s not manspreading, if that makes sense – a conceptual manspreader, not maliciously or even consciously, mind you, but absent-mindedly. On the flipside, we have Shepard’s Matt as an uptight Type-A, a guy whose ambitions run so deep that he can’t help but be tripped up by them. He wants nothing more than to achieve the very pinnacle of success, even as he struggles to hide his insecurities behind his perfectionism. He thinks being serious means being self-serious, which leaves him conflicted.

The two of them together are dynamite, by the way, tied together by purposeful choices and complete fearlessness. They are in nigh-constant motion – sometimes verbally, sometimes physically, but that sense of movement is always there, even in those rare instances when the actors are still. The strength of their comedic chemistry is the crux of the entire show … and it’s a strong one.

The production team certainly holds up their end. Scenic designer Jess Ploszaj has constructed a masterful reproduction of a single dude’s apartment, evoking the perfect flavor of dingy, crusty neglect. Lighting designer Erica Lauren Maholmes does great work, crafting cues that shift us in space and time within the confines of the single fixed set. The costumes are spot on, both in the slacker chic of Matt and Ben and in the quick-change outfits of (characters redacted); typically top-notch work from Kevin Koski. Reed Davis has put together an impressive prop design – there’s a LOT of stuff here – and Ben Scheff’s sound design demonstrates an understanding of the tricky Opera House acoustics.

“Matt & Ben” is a different kind of show, a strange love letter to friendship and ambition and popular culture. It is funny and heartfelt, a tale of two guys who have no idea that they’re on the verge of realizing their wildest dreams. In many ways, the show is difficult to describe, but one thing seems certain – you’ve probably never seen anything quite like it before.

Last modified on Wednesday, 26 October 2022 11:30

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