With plenty of pop culture candy, quirky magical realism, and a heaping helping of side-splitting silliness, Flying V’s newest show, Matt and Ben, has formulated a raucous recipe for a preparative to Fringe that lives up to their motto: “Be Awesome.”
Matt and Ben is a story about pre-fame Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, appropriately co-written by pre-fame Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, and their quest to write a script that will get them noticed by a movie studio. While they are working on what may be the worst possible idea for a film (a fully transcribed version of Catcher in the Rye), a full copy of the script of Good Will Hunting literally falls through the ceiling. It’s a magical moment that could change their lives, but first they have to get out of their own way to let that change happen.
A miraculously-plummeting Oscar-winning romantic drama isn’t the only whimsically fictional thing about Matt and Ben. There are unexpected visits from famous people, Poe-like creepiness and, true to the original 2002 New York Fringe production, both Matt and Ben are played by ladies in drag.
Katie Jeffries plays Ben Affleck with a “chillaxing” vibe, the kind of lovable but fiercely loyal goofball easily envisioned when one looks at Ben Affleck’s cute, dumb face. Jeffries is wonderfully watchable in this role: bro-y without being mocking, fluid without losing physical control, and leaving the general impression of someone you’d love to go to karaoke with.
Tia Shearer as Matt Damon is the Felix Unger of this odd couple. Matt is a more difficult role, needing to get the audience (and Ben) on his side through earnestness. Shearer lends urgency to the role with convincing wide-eyed enthusiasm and ambition, using a straight-backed physicality and bouncing energy that keeps her character on target, but also veering away from the unlikable. She does well with the “straight” “man” role, but when the time comes for her to get silly, she steals the show with sharp timing and belly-laugh inducing cartoonish antics.
But Matt and Ben is, above all, the story of a bromance flourishing into a creative partnership, so the relationship between these characters is pivotal. Thankfully, Jeffries and Shearer have a fine rapport (both are company members of Flying V) that shines through and feels genuine. They make a few choices in tandem that could be stronger; I’d like them to have a more set vocal quality for both characters, which is a bit of a nondescript drag king voice right now.
A show this soaked in silliness requires some sentimentality to balance its flavors, and they find a bit of that when their care for each other shines through. But the more bromantic aspects of the play deserve more weight to keep the emotional rhythm even. This is a consistent problem in Fringe-y shows like Matt and Ben, where silliness will swing hard into conflict and feel unearned, but director Matt Bassett has managed to soften some of those edges. The result is that Matt and Ben manages to keep Fringe wildness while maintaining a usually professional air.
Matt and Ben
closes June 26, 2016
Details and tickets
One element, or rather set of elements, that I haven’t mentioned but catapult Matt and Ben from good to damn good is design. This show is proof that fancy tricks, huge budgets, or fantastical settings aren’t required for great design. Joseph Musumeci Jr.’s version of Ben’s realistic 1990’s apartment is teeming with detail work (props to Props Designer Andrea “Dre” Moore here) that sets time and place cleverly: used food containers, a hilariously oversized movie poster, the exactly correct computer style with koosh ball accoutrements, and, of course, crappy couch most likely stolen from a grandmother’s treelawn on trash day. Kristin A. Thompson’s lighting rig is hyper simple, but dramatically effective; she simply doesn’t include lights that aren’t needed. That’s the sign of a confident and ruthlessly efficient artist at work creating lovely things.
Kat Fleshman’s costumes were also on point. She found what may be the least flattering (but perfectly period appropriate) jeans for Jefferies’ Ben and an earnestly hideous ensemble for Shearer’s Matt that put an instant pin in his personality. All of these combined aren’t expensive, they aren’t unnatural and they aren’t fancy. These designs are, simply put, the work of talented artists who give a damn about their work, and it is refreshing to see.
Matt and Ben should be a standard for anyone who is either going to see Fringe shows this year or, even better, anyone who is going to produce Fringe shows this year. The play is direct, effective, and full-feeling despite its short length. The design is limited, but it perfectly fits its calling. The actors have found the heart of the piece and expressed it sans distractions to the audience. These are all things that make a kickass indie play, and one that, in Flying V’s own words, definitely knows how to “Be Awesome.”
Matt and Ben by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers. Directed by Matt Bassett. Featuring Tia Shearer and Katie Jeffries. Set Design: Jos. B. Musumeci, Jr. Lighting Design: Kristin A. Thompson . Costume Design: Kat Fleshman . Props Design: Andrea ‘Dre’ Moore . Sound Design: Neil McFadden . Fight Director: Jonathan Ezra Rubin . Stage Manager: Tess Wagner. Produced by Flying V . Reviewed by Alan Katz.