In America's voracious cult of celebrity, a relationship between stars is the juiciest fodder of all. When childhood friends Matt Damon and Ben Affleck burst on the scene nearly 10 years ago with the success of Good Will Hunting, the story of two Boston boys making it big together created a media feeding frenzy. Flashbulbs and fervent copy surrounded the charming high school chums who won an Oscar for their first screenplay.
In Matt & Ben, playwrights Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers spoof the cultural icons Before They Were Stars, and speculate on the events leading up to their big break. As the current production at the Waterfront Theatre shows, however, the play works better as a fictional case study of a dysfunctional friendship than as the rollicking pop-culture satire it aspires to be.
Part of the parody is that the men are played by women, which is an especially effective dig at Ben's mucho macho persona. The idea of girls playing the guys came naturally: Kaling and Withers wrote the roles for themselves in 2002, as newly minted Dartmouth grads and proverbial starving actors without gigs. The novel concept and seductive appeal of lampooning Hollywood hotties made the play a hip Fringe Festival and Off-Broadway hit.
At the Waterfront, Chris Caswell as Matt and Geeda Searfoorce as Ben turned in earnest, eager performances, rich with gently amusing moments. But ultimately they faced the limitations of a script that is more extended "Saturday Night Live" sketch than side-splitting farce. Seth Jarvis' cluttered set and often-stilted direction further hampered the action's flow. Yet the undeniable element of naughty fun, combined with some real insight into the dark underbelly of friendship, made the trip to see Caswell and Searfoorce worthwhile.
The playwrights started with a simple premise: How could two bozos -- an eager but hopelessly green Harvard drop-out and his crotch-grabbing, bimbo buddy -- write an Academy Award-winning screenplay on their first try? The answer: They didn't. The finished script fell from the sky -- or, more precisely, the ceiling of Ben's ratty, junk-food-strewn apartment. The gods must have been crazy. They rained their precious gift on mildly endearing but hardly deserving men-children, who nearly destroy their friendship trying to figure out what to do with it.
As the play opens, the less-than-dynamic duo is trying to pen a screenplay of Catcher in the Rye, reassuring themselves that "adaptation is the highest form of flattery." Tensions and deceptions in their relationship immediately become apparent -- Matt has secretly auditioned for and won a role in a Sam Shepard play at the Cambridge Rep -- as do differences in their character. Matt thinks long-range and dreams big; while not overly bright, he can be cunning. Ben is basically a ham: goofy, vain and quick-tempered, but desperately loyal to Matt in his own twisted way.
Their friendship is a tangled web. The fundamental inequalities in their perceptions of each other -- Matt, the smart one; Ben, the pretty boy -- give rise to unexpressed insecurities and jealousies. As the action unfolds, so does a fundamental question about friendship: Where does supporting each other's ego end and the lying begin? But brutal honesty is usually not the best policy, either, especially between men, where apartment-trashing and fisticuffs may ensue.
The heaven-sent script is the catalyst for roiling the complacent status quo. Matt realizes it's the best one he's ever read, and the role of Will Hunting feels tailor-made for him. The title page reads, "by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck." Now, how to get the world to believe they actually wrote it? One strategy is to finish their adaptation of Catcher, and shop it around first, to make this seem like their second screenplay.
A much trickier issue is getting Ben to acknowledge that he can't take on the demanding lead part. In one of many wink-and-nod lines that predict a future the audience already knows, Matt tries to assuage Ben's hurt feelings over not being right for the sensitive Will role. "You're like this charismatic, action-hero blockbuster hang-off-the-side-of-buildings kind of guy," Matt exclaims. Ben sulks. "Do you think I'm so stupid that I would take that as a compliment?"
The plot doesn't so much resolve as simply end. We all know what happens: They win the Oscar. But the poignancy comes from an admission Matt makes to the audience in the final scene. "I didn't mean to treat him bad, I meant to treat him honestly, you know, as a friend." There are no wounds quite so deep, the play implies, even when the public ending is a happy one.
Chris Caswell effectively conveyed Matt's dogged, if rough-edged, determination. Clad in khaki pants and a white Oxford shirt, with her hair pinned back, she physically captured Matt's square-jawed, boyish look. Her purposeful stride and frequently knitted brow accentuated how carefully her character tries to plot his course, how seriously he takes his own ambition.
Caswell also provided the evening's comic highlight when she stepped out of her role as Matt to play J.D. Salinger. In the surreal scene, Salinger is a preppy, pipe-smoking whack job who has dropped by to tell Ben why he'll never get the rights to adapt Catcher. Caswell gave her portrayal a wide-eyed, deadpan lunacy that was simply hilarious, especially when convincing Ben that the rights were already sold to John Woo, "master of rockin' action flicks," so that Catcher can be "included in the canon of rough-'em-up cinema."
As Ben, Geeda Searfoorce captured both his swagger and his nagging sense of inferiority. He carries the Ivy chip on his shoulder about Matt's "Harvard attitude," while still boasting about conquests like scoring with his best friend's senior-prom date. In a navy nylon tracksuit and backwards Red Sox cap, Searfoorce moved with a loose-limbed, territorially assertive rhythm. Her relaxed body language conjured Ben's outwardly laid-back demeanor, but she tensed up sharply when his quick-rising anger came to the surface.
Regrettably, a poorly arranged, overstuffed stage impeded the actors' movements. The disarray of Ben's apartment could have been conveyed with about 50 percent less clutter. The symmetrical layout of the furnishings placed an entirely unnecessary large coffee table in front of the central couch. Director Seth Jarvis staged much of the action -- especially flashbacks and "fourth wall" moments when characters speak right to the audience -- directly in front of this furniture, which pushed the action so far forward that it was not fully lit.
Other technical elements proved distracting. Sound effects were poorly realized. It was unclear whether this was the fault of Adam Cooper Wood's sound design or the theater's audio system. The dark red chosen by Casey Covey to light the Salinger and Gwyneth Paltrow dream sequences obscured the scenes and detracted from their humor. And, as in other Waterfront productions, the audience could plainly see the shadows of the crew working backstage on one side of the set.
The charm of this play is that it reminds us: Celebrity happens. Lightning strikes. And even if you bomb with a Jersey Girl or a Gigli, fans still swoon, paparazzi still swarm, and multimillion-dollar paychecks keep rolling in. Meanwhile, far better actors continue to toil in obscurity, sometimes bitter that their big break hasn't fallen from the heavens.
At least Kaling and Withers decided to carpe stylum (seize the pen) and write their own ticket out. One can only wish them an even stronger next act.