In the pantheon of celebrity bromances, longtime friends and collaborators Matt Damon and Ben Affleck rank pretty high.
So it’s hardly a surprise that when Mindy Kaling (“The Office,” “The Mindy Project”) and Brenda Withers wrote their 2002 New York Fringe Festival comedy “Matt and Ben,” now being staged by Penny Seats Theatre as a dinner theater production (at Conor O’Neill’s), the pair’s first names sufficed to give audiences an idea of precisely what they were in for.
What was more of a surprise, however, was that Kaling and Withers had winkingly played the titular roles themselves, so local actresses Allison Megroet and Allyson Miko are now doing so for Penny Seats’ production.
“It’s harder to truly compare people to Matt and Ben when they’re not the same gender, so having women play them helps people to go into the show with a clean slate,” said director Mat Pecek.
Set at the time when the two men co-wrote their Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting” (1997), “Matt and Ben” is set in motion when the script literally falls from the sky into their apartment, demanding their attention. And while it may launch the two struggling actors into super-stardom, it also threatens to end their friendship.
“By my understanding, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck shocked everyone with ‘Good Will Hunting,’” said Pecek. “No one expected it out of them. But everything that’s happened since then … happened because they worked really hard on ‘Good Will Hunting,’ which I think is one of the best screenplays ever written.”
The play’s “script falling from the sky” conceit translates the world’s surprise at the men’s seemingly hidden talents; and indeed, more than a faithful, wholly truthful representation of the actors, “Matt and Ben” skewers the men’s public, tabloid-fueled personas: Affleck as the handsome meathead getting by on his looks, and Damon as the more cerebral, serious actor.
“Without spoiling anything, a couple of other characters show up in the play, like Gwyneth Paltrow,” said Pecek, citing one of Affleck’s famous former girlfriends. “And those characters are also more about the media’s perception of them than their actual personality.”
Pecek first saw a production of “Matt and Ben” while he was a student at Adrian College, and he pitched the show to Penny Seats.
“It’s really, really funny, but it also manages to have some nice moments, too,” said Pecek. “The general theme of loyalty underlines it all. And I just think it’s easy to identify with a pair of friends arguing about something.”
Conor O’Neill’s is, to some degree, an unconventional space for a theatrical production, but Pecek and his cast are adapting. “We just have to figure out how to make certain magic moments in the play happen in a bar where we can’t nail things to the wall or screw things to the ceiling,” said Pecek.
Though two decades have passed since Damon and Affleck had their first big cultural moment in the spotlight, Pecek believe this playful spin on their “origin story” holds up over time.
“I think it actually goes a long way toward helping people love them all over again,” said Pecek. “ … In my personal opinion, you leave the play adoring Ben Affleck and liking Matt Damon. But then, that’s kind of how I feel in real life.”