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Theater Review - Ill Will Hunting

Matt & Ben plumbs the shallow depths of Hollywood duo

Sour grapes, much? Unmitigated envy shoots through Matt & Ben, Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers' buzz-generating comedy about showbiz success. The playwrights pursue a tantalizing comic subject in Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's early friendship and the origins of the Good Will Hunting screenplay. And the production hinges on an intriguing gimmick by casting actresses as the future stars of The Legend of Bagger Vance and Gigli.

Matt & Ben won Best Production at New York's 2002 Fringe Festival and the touring show suggests it belongs more on the theatrical fringes than the classy atmosphere of the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts. You approach Matt & Ben more than willing to meet the players halfway, but the wispy, at times mean-spirited show never generates enough laughs to justify the attention it gets.

Matt & Ben finds the longtime chums as struggling actors in Boston, boastful of their minor screen appearances in the forgotten 1992 film School Ties. They've pinned their futures to a half-assed adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye, which they're penning themselves as the play opens: Ben (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) types at the computer while Matt (Jennifer Morris) spells the big words. Without warning, a screenplay titled Good Will Hunting and bearing their names as its authors, drops from the ceiling.

The pair quickly recognize the viability of the future Oscar-winning script and argue whether it's a blessing, a curse or a divine test. As they squabble over which one of them gets to play Will Hunting, Matt & Ben recalls highlights of the chums' mismatched friendship. The playwrights' cleverest conceit tailors the duo's public personae to the dynamics of a classic comedy team. In a flashback to their high school talent show, Matt emerges as the smart, easily irritated, anal-retentive one, while Ben proves popular, clownish and none-too-bright.

The script cracks plenty of inside gags about the pair's impending careers in films and the tabloids. "I'm gonna meet Spielberg!" says Matt. "I'm gonna meet Daisy Fuentes!" says Ben, who adds, "I like Latin women." A sequence when they disastrously read through one of the script's scenes between Matt Damon and Minnie Driver nearly redeems the price of a ticket.

But the reverse-gender casting feels like a joke with no punch line. Since Damon and Affleck lack exaggerated traits for obvious impersonation, the show doesn't bother to approximate them. In fact, Matt & Ben looks for humor in the actress's lack of resemblance to the stars. African-American Bernstine stands about a head shorter than Morris, but she plays Ben, the taller one in real life. Perhaps avoiding look-alike actors is meant to reinforce the notion that, since fame is fickle, anyone could have won Damon and Affleck's laurels.

Neither player proves intrinsically funny on her own. Morris plays Matt as a loose-limbed goofus, while Bernstine gives Ben hip-hop hand gestures that don't fit our image of Affleck. Both sound like generic, blue-collar New Yawk guys instead of wannabe actors from Boston. But to Bernstine's credit, she does a witty impression of Gwyneth Paltrow in a fantasy scene.

In Hollywood terms, the Rialto's Matt & Ben qualifies as a fish-out-of-water scenario. At 75 minutes, the frivolous show plays like a drawn-out improv sketch suitable for midnight features at a scruffy, youth-oriented playhouse or the back room of a bar. It feels stranded at the cavernous Rialto, and Morris seems especially hungry for audience responses to play off of.

Matt & Ben leaves a sour aftertaste. The script tempers its bitterness with the insight that in show business, it doesn't matter how you get in: If you're good, you can stay. The writers undoubtedly believe that while the talented Mr. Damon takes his craft more seriously than party-boy Affleck, neither deserve their status as megastars. Matt & Ben's fantastical plot ultimately seems a means to avoid slander charges while publicly disputing the Good Will Hunting script's born identity.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com