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Mindy and Brenda
and Matt & Ben

by Beth Herstein

Those who follow New York theatre have no doubt heard of the new Off-Broadway hit Matt and Ben . It is a 70-minute show that asks the improbable question: What if, while best friends and near-unknowns Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were in Ben's apartment writing a film version of the classic novel Catcher in the Rye, the screenplay for Good Will Hunting fell, fully written, from the ceiling? It is an enormously enjoyable show that, in addition to its humor, slyly provokes thoughts and discourse on friendship, collaboration and the mysteries of the creative process. The show was a hit at the 2002 Fringe Festival, and recently opened to excellent reviews at P.S. 122 - where, after selling out its six-week engagement, it extended into an open ended run.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, the bright and charming best friends who created, developed and star in Matt & Ben. We met at Veselka, a restaurant a block away from P.S. 122. While they shared an order of fries (with their hectic schedule they have to grab food when they have the chance, they explained), we discussed their new success, their future plans, and their experiences with and thoughts on Matt & Ben...


Mindy Kaling as Ben Affleck and Brenda Withers as Matt Damon in Matt & Ben
Photo: Will Beckton
Beth Herstein:  What is it like to have such great success all of a sudden?

Mindy Kaling:  It's sort of overwhelming.

Brenda Withers:  We've been working on the project for about two years now, so it doesn't feel overnight to us. But, this last sort of leap, into being in The New York Times and into being interviewed at all, is very new to us.

MK:  We're so lucky, because of the unique situation of Brenda and I having written the show together and performing in it and being best friends.

BH:  Do you have plans to collaborate in the future?

BW:  If we get to.

MK:  I think the first project we're going to do after this is probably going to be a project together. That's what we're most excited about right now - whether it's a sitcom, or another play, or [laughs] a clothing line, or a radio mystery ...

BW:  Or a brewery ...

MK:  A brewery. Exactly. I mean, people believe in us together right now, so we want to capitalize on that.

BH:  There are two texts that you have in the show: Catcher in the Rye and Buried Child. What kind of significance do those choices have for you?

BW:  We tried to make everything in the play as specific as possible, both thematically and culturally. As much as it is a fun play, we did try and pick things that spoke to the project we were working on. And Catcher in the Rye is just that quintessential, adolescent text. It's the greatest. Everybody knows it, everybody's familiar with it, and everybody wants to make that their story. I think that's sort of Matt and Ben's story as well. You kind of look at how they came up and where they came from, and everybody wants to say, "That's me too. That's me too" ... in the same way that everyone looks at Holden and thinks, "That's me too, I know that feeling." We're all going through the same thing.

MK:  Buried Child, I think, is such an interesting play. I mean, it's a wonderful play, and Sam Shepard is such a wonderful playwright. It also works on so many levels here, because it's the kind of play that the Matt character would really identify with. Not only with the play as being ... not underground, but if you're going to movies and watching tv, you wouldn't necessarily know about it even though it won the Pulitzer Prize. It's sort of like a theater snob versus the average American, which is more like the Ben character. The other thing is that when Sam Shepard wrote the play, he was so young and so handsome. I think that really works for Matt, who wants something closer to that kind of success. And, we also just love Catcher in the Rye, and Buried Child. They're brilliant works.

BH:  Mindy, you studied with August Wilson. I wonder how that background worked into your work. Have your professors come to see the show and given you feedback?

MK:  I was 18 and I was a freshman in college when I worked with August Wilson. [musing] .... I don't actually know if he would remember me. But, I can't think of a play more different from Matt & Ben in tone and theme than, say, Seven Guitars. And, it's kind of ridiculous to even compare our play to something by August Wilson. I don't know how he would like it.

BW:  We did have a lot of opportunities, separately and together, to work with people who were just legends in the field. It's pretty curious. A lot of our professors who we really respected taught us all these different things - classical theater, avant-garde, this and that. We have culled from a lot of these different traditions, but have also really grounded ourselves in pop culture. So, it's strange.

We had a professor come the other night, whom we admire and look up to so much. She taught us about Brecht and Mabou Mines ... and, we've taken threads of that, but a lot of this has to do with mainstream movie culture and stuff like that. You never know how people are going to take it.

BH:  How did your professor enjoy the show?

BW:  She liked it. It's just that you never know where people want you to go in your career. Though, they're happy for you that you're doing well.

MK:   And, actually, too, I would love for August Wilson to come to the show. There are some parts of it that I think he would like. And, I'm sure he would understand everything about Sam Shepard and stuff like that. But, would he necessarily know everything about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?

BW:  Probably not.

MK:  It's definitely a generational thing that - I don't think it will alienate people, but certain people are going to be more familiar with it.

BH:  What's it been like - from the apartment, to the Fringe Festival, and to its current incarnation?

BW:  It has been a very long road. The most important thing to us when we started out was just getting our foot in the door in some way. The first incarnation was a workshop down at Here Art Center, which is a great space. But, we weren't headlining or anything. We were just renting out the space and hoping our family would come see us. And, that was sort of piggybacking on our having just come out of school. It was about the work, and working together and writing and performing. And, then, we saw that it was also marketable, because it's about these two big stars. So we were pulled in that direction, and that's where the Fringe Festival came in.

MK:  They have a term for when movies are going to made, called "development hell." Even though the outcome has been fantastic - and though we're so excited about the stuff we've done, and the venue we're in is terrific, the people have been great - in the beginning, it was still the same kind of thing. It was like hell. You didn't know, even though it was a big hit, whether the entree person would be your next producer or whether the show was ever going to happen. And, to be the people who wrote it, and created it, and performed it, and to have somebody else have that power over it ...

BW:  It's very strange.

MK:  Very strange, and unique. And, at times it felt unfair. In that way, it has been the most difficult thing I have ever been a part of. It's been great that Brenda has been involved.

BW:  There are a lot of roles - financial, logistical - that, coming from where we're coming from, we're pretty young and have an idealistic mind set ... and that gets smashed, by the pure economics of things, and the way people do things. You know, not being able to open in a certain month versus another - and, we're like, "It's just a play." And, that's how we treat it, and we've been lucky to be able to treat it that way. As much as we're pressured, sometimes. Because your creative imagination can't be the deciding factor.

MK:  And it's frustrating when you're supposed to be this big hit in New York City theater, and the fee that you're getting isn't enough to support you living in Manhattan. People say, "How has it affected you?", and I say, "Not that much" ... ao it's been a source of tension with that, and I don't think people know about that. But, it has been wonderful too.

BH:  Well, New York is a great leveler. It's very humbling, financially.

BW:  It's shocking. It's been a great affirmation, by our producers who've been behind us and who believe in the creative part of the project. It's been amazing like that. To have people who are not in your family, who didn't grow up with you since you were a kid, putting up their money and their time and their effort, their toil to help you along, and to put the show up. And on the other side, there's an intangible value being invested in you. I mean, it's wonderful, and yet you still feel like a starving artist. It's like - maybe we have to get a good job, or something.

BH:  You want to be a success in an objective way, but there's a much more subjective way of defining for yourself what success means.

BW:  That's for sure.

MK:  There's that tension all the time.

BH:  When did your director David Warren come on board?

BW:  David came on this summer, when we did this incarnation of the play. We worked with him for about three weeks, and then about a week of table work. He really transformed our performances, bumped it all up a notch.

BH:  How so?

BW:  Well, we had been directing each other, basically in our living room late at night. We never had rehearsal space or anything like that. Now, we can not be everything - writer, actor, director, everything, producer. We get to just wear our actor hats and that's it, and really enjoy the characters and make them real and have a logic to them, which, I think, has really helped the play. We'd done a lot of rewrites, and made it more of a real story, and given it more of an arc. But, we'd never had the opportunity to work that into the acting. And, that was what he helped us do. His help has been immeasurable ...

It's amazing. It's made us really appreciate why theater is such a collaborative thing. You think you can just get up, stand up and read your lines. And, if you wrote them you should know how to do it. But then you get a really great director on a project and you think, "wow." You see the difference.

MK:  Self direction is impossible. And, we didn't even realize that, we were so busy writing it. So, it was pretty wonderful that we got him to work with us. It is such a prestigious thing for us to get to work with David. He's done so many amazing things. And, he's been wonderful.

BH:  What is the pulse or the nerve that you think you're touching in the public, and how does that differ, if at all, from what affected you and compelled you to write about this?

BW:  I think they're these friends who get to work together. Which, no matter what industry you're in, what job you have, that's a dream. It's this thing of, I'm working at home, I'm working in this really comfortable way, with people I know and love and trust. And, they were able to rise to mega-stardom, remaining friends. From pretty humble beginnings, which the rest of us can relate to. And the rest of it, the plot of the story, is a riff on what is creativity, and where do you get an idea from. When you get an idea like Good Will Hunting - and we do think it's great, it's just a fabulous movie, we love it - you want to know more about the people. That's why people are interested in celebrity. They say, "I relate to all the ideas in that movie, I enjoy it, it's exciting." And, they wonder: "Who are these people and how were they able to do it? I would like to, too." Even if you're not an artist, you want to know how to express yourself in that way. That's why people are - why we say they are - so obsessed with celebrity. It comes from somewhere. It's not all bad, as in wanting to know everybody's dirty secrets.

MK:  Another thing that's very interesting is that [Matt and Ben] weren't overnight successes. They did all the embarrassing stock parts. They were not immediately discovered. They had to go to high school and they tried to go to college. I mean, they weren't just discovered because they were so good looking. Although now, of course, we all think they're just the hunkiest guys alive. But, theirs is just the American story that everybody has. And, they did this movie that they wrote together, so they had some creativity within them. It's also very interesting seeing how the two of them have dealt with all the fame. You can go two different ways. And, that to me is such an American thing to be obsessed about - how you're going to deal with that. Are you going to stay real, or are you going to let it govern? I think that it's an interesting story line, too. But, even if it wasn't movie stars - if it was Bill Gates, or whoever - that idea that you can come from nothing is kind of a fascinating thing. To us, anyway ...


Photo: Robert Zash
BW:  I think a lot of the play came from ... a chronicle about creation. We were friends writing about friends writing together. And, all of those issues that come up in the play came up with us. Everybody's a Matt and everybody's a Ben at some time. Somebody wants to work, and somebody doesn't. And, the greatness of having your friend to collaborate with, or anybody to collaborate with, is that you can always depend on that person to give you a kick if you need it, or you can do that for them. So, I think a lot of the scenes, and that sort of affection, stems from our affection, our friendship, and our relationship as writers and actresses.

MK:  I read the review by Bruce Weber, who says, "I hate Ben Affleck, and why I like the show, is they seem to hate him too." And, we're not going to say that we don't lampoon them or send them up. But, our director said it best - that the show is a little wicked, but it's not downright brutal to those guys. I think one of the biggest compliments that we pay them ... is that the script was so good that it was like a gift from God. The problem is that on late night talk shows [so many of the jokes] about Ben are negative - when you see someone portraying him in a comic way, it's going to necessarily seem to fall into that category. We don't divorce ourselves from that.

BH:  Everyone talks about how believable you are playing these mega-stars of the opposite sex. And, I think part of it is also that you portray them more as types. You're just comfortable on stage and you're doing characters.

BW:  And that's the great thing about theater, as opposed to film, and even things like TV now. [Mindy was] saying just the other day how Chevy Chase was able to be on Saturday Night Live and impersonate Gerald Ford with - nothing. He was just him and he said, "I am [President Gerald Ford]," and the audience went along with it. Now, everyone needs prosthetic noses. And, that's one way to go, especially in the film and television media, because the audience kind of wants to see reality. But in theater, you're coming in already and saying, "We're all in the same room, but we're going to pretend we're not. And, we're going to pretend that you're living right now, and we're watching you live." It's this whole big conceit of being able to take people a little farther away from reality than they normally would go.

BH:  What do you want people to get from Matt & Ben?

BW:  There are all these great jokes we have, and we want people to have a good time. We have a lot of fun doing it. But also, what the project addresses is collaboration and friendship. And, we feel really fortunate that most people have come out talking about that.

MK:  If you're a creative person, and I think that this play is really in a lot of ways for creative people, the process is something that's just as important as the final product. Whether you're writing a book, or doing a painting, or something like that, it's very easy to get caught up in the question of what's it going to be like; what's it going to be. But, for me, this show is also so much about how it is to be creative and what that can be, and how it can be self destructive if you let it.

BH:  I don't want to give away anything, so I'm going to edit my comment for publication. But you wrap up the show in a way that shows that, however the project came to Matt and Ben, they still have to tap into their own creativity to complete it. And you revisit the whole initial discussion in the show, about Adaption versus Imitation.

BW:  I think that happens a lot in the creative process. You have a great idea, you think it's perfect, and somehow the rug gets pulled out from under you. Either you can't put it on or ... you find out that someone has already done that. Because the history of art is such a long history. So it happens all the time. You have to find a way around the obstacles that come up in the creative process.

Matt & Ben
P.S. 122
150 1st Avenue (at E. 9th Street)
East Village, New York City

Monday-Thursday, 8:00 PM
Friday-Saturday, 7:00PM & 10:00PM

Tickets: $25 Monday-Thursday, $30 Friday-Saturday ($18 w/ student id at box office only). Available at www.theatermania.com and by phone call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 (outside of the NY Metro area) Mon-Fri 9AM-8PM, Sat-Sun 10AM-6PM.

Beginning at 2:00 PM a block of tickets are available daily at the Box Office for same day performances.


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