N.C. Stage Company produces Mindy Kaling’s ‘Matt & Ben’

RIGHT-HAND WOMAN: 'Matt and Ben' follows Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the mid 1990s, two years before they’d hit it big with Good Will Hunting. Actress Anne Thibault, left (with Laura Rikard), says the script highlights the “yin and yang of these two guys who read differently in the public eye.”
RIGHT-HAND WOMAN: 'Matt and Ben' follows Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in the mid 1990s, two years before they’d hit it big with Good Will Hunting. Actress Anne Thibault, left (with Laura Rikard), says the script highlights the “yin and yang of these two guys who read differently in the public eye.” Photo by Nina Swann

Remember I Love Lucy? Well, Matt & Ben is like the sitcom’s colorized, postmodern frat brother, pickled in cheap beer and f-bombs.

It follows Matt Damon (Anne Thibault) and Ben Affleck (Laura Rikard) in some angsty, prepubescent phase when both are struggling to make headway in Hollywood. The play opens in Somerville, Mass., in the mid 199os. Ben is tending bloodied knees from Gigli, a botched love story that crashed and burned, and Matt is taking himself way too seriously.

All they want is fame, sex, riches and maybe a Sony PlayStation. How they balance bromance and potential stardom is the premise of Matt & Ben, opening Wednesday, May 17, at N.C. Stage Company.

“It’s the journey of them navigating threats to their friendship,” says director Angie Flynn-McIver. The play unfolds in Ben’s Boston-area apartment, a dive overrun with junk food wrappers and eclectic furnishings (set design by Catori Swann). They’re chewing over a screenplay adaptation of Catcher in the Rye when a manuscript for Good Will Hunting literally appears from thin air.

Fearing that someone else might be in the apartment, they let loose the hilariously relatable banter that’s captivated audiences since the script’s off-Broadway debut in 2002.

Ben shouts: “But just to make sure there was no one there, we actually talked a lot louder than normal. ‘Hey, where’d this come from?’”

And Matt yells back: “I don’t know, but it fell right next to my gun.”

Writers/best friends Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling were poking fun at Affleck and Damon’s quick rise to celebrity status. Good Will Hunting grossed over $225 million in theaters and won Best Original Screenplay at the 1998 Oscars. But the two women are also stirring the pot. That much is evident when the Matt character points out his privilege.

“C’mon, look,” he says. “We’re white, we’re American, we’re male.”

In other words, they had the upper hand onstage — especially when compared to actress Kaling, a woman with dark skin and Hindu parents. As Rikard explains, there aren’t many acting gigs for women like that.

“Around 70 percent of all roles are for men, and 28 percent are for young, beautiful women,” she says. Fortunately, Kaling is changing that perception, first with her turn in the comedic mockumentary “The Office” and the “The Mindy Project,” in which she stars.

“But when we were coming of age in New York City, there weren’t many positions for us,” says Rikard. She’s speaking for both herself and Thibault. The two met in their 20s while working as actresses in that city. They’d catch up with one another on the subway or spend weekends watching hot, star-studded productions together. One time, they even slept outside for tickets to The Seagull. “I remember waking up and seeing gum on the pavement,” says Rikard. “Some people wait outside for concerts; we do it for Chekhov.” It’s worth noting that Thibault went on to perform in The Seagull off-Broadway. She also toured with the National Shakespeare Company, among other accomplishments. Rikard has appeared at Carnegie Hall, performed onstage with Sir Paul McCartney and landed numerous film, TV and commercial roles.

In some ways, the Matt-Ben dynamic is mirrored in Rikard and Thibault’s friendship. “When we met, I looked up to Anne for advice,” says Rikard. “She seemed more mature.” These days, Rikard splits her time between WNC and Florida (she’s a professor of acting and directing at the University of Miami), and Thibault is currently at working at Eastern Illinois University, so the Matt & Ben run will be like a reunion.

Of course, there’s the obvious question: Why are two women playing Damon and Affleck? Flynn-McIver says cross-gender casting is the only way to rightfully perform Withers and Kaling’s script.

“From the very inception, men were never meant for these roles,” she says. Having men play the parts would be a huge distraction because the audience would be scrutinizing the cast’s looks for authenticity, she explains. Plus, it would seem as if they were doing impersonations, not acting.

Rikard does do a few impressions, though. During a read-through of Good Will Hunting, Ben acts out lines from Skylar, a British undergrad who has the hots for math genius Will Hunting. Being a complete goofball, Ben can’t quite perfect the character’s English accent. His dialects wander through Europe, the U.S. and even into the outskirts of Gotham City with a Batman impersonation.

“If I keep a straight face, I’ll give everyone in the audience $1,” says Thibault. Matt & Ben is satire, after all. But there are softer moments, too, and Flynn-McIver is working hard to balance sentimentality and slapstick.

“If it were all just funny, it wouldn’t pack the wallop that it does,” she says. “This play has real meat and substantial heart.”

WHAT: Matt & Ben
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Wednesday, May 17, to Sunday, June 11. Wednesday through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays and select Saturdays at 2 p.m. $16-$34

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About Lauren Stepp
Lauren Stepp is an award-winning writer with bylines here in these mountains and out yonder, too.

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