‘Matt & Ben’: Rewriting a Hollywood Bromance

Willow Creek Theatre Co. Presents: Matt & Ben

The Treehouse, Iowa City — through Feb. 23

Kelli Massey (L) and Clara Haverstic in Willow Creek Theatre Co.’s ‘Matt and Ben.’ — courtesy of the theater

After more than a decade of superhuman blockbusters on the big screen, it’s hard to say if audiences are still hungry for another origin story. Willow Creek Theatre Co., Iowa City’s newest troupe, is staking their claim on the witty retelling of the rise of Hollywood celebrities, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers wrote and originally starred in Matt & Ben, a quirky, bizarre “off-off Broadway” hit. The play is a re-imagined peek inside the grimy apartment of the future stars of the Bourne series and Reindeer Games, respectively.

Readers may remember the Hollywood legend of these two scarcely known, struggling actors who, seemingly magically, co-wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting. The film came out of nowhere and won two Academy Awards (it was nominated for nine) and catapulted Damon and Affleck to instant stardom. Over the following years, Affleck became a tabloid sensation — remember Bennifer, anyone? — and both have been mainstays in film ever since.

Directed for Willow Creek by Ashlynn Dale, the play presents a comedic thesis: that the only possible explanation for the brilliant script was that it inexplicably fell out of the ceiling of Ben’s apartment, pre-printed in its entirety and with Damon and Affleck’s names boldly printed on the cover.

Matt & Ben is essentially an absurdist buddy comedy. It leans heavily on the popular image of Damon as the dedicated overachiever, and Affleck as the attractive clown — popular, dumb and completely untalented. I mean absurdist in the theatrical sense: unexplained events, mysterious appearances, twists on stereotypes and smart social commentary.

It’s clever, abounding with in-jokes for fans of the celebrities and presenting them as a bizarre combination of their public personae and their Good Will Hunting characters. Since the parts of Damon and Affleck are played by female actors, the audience is presented with a telling reflection of “bro culture” in the ’90s, and thus the lasting and damaging patriarchal legacy in Hollywood and beyond.

Kelli Massey (Ben) unabashedly makes her Affleck every bit as unaware and overblown as he is imagined in popular culture. It is not easy to make intentional overacting look good, but Massey does the job.

Whether using a horrid British accent to work a scene as Minnie Driver, or stomping around the stage wildly as Will Hunting, Massey commands the funniest portions of the play, despite some cringe-worthy (though sadly fitting to the 1995 setting) lines.

Kelli Massey (L) and Clara Haverstic in Willow Creek Theatre Co.’s ‘Matt and Ben.’ — courtesy of the theater

Clara Haverstic (Matt) is very effective in depicting Damon as driven to personal and artistic perfection. She’s the classic straight “man” to Massey-as-Affleck’s fool, perhaps a little too into himself. It is Haverstic’s solid presence that drives the play forward, and her many comic moments are heightened by her straightforward manner. Haverstic’s physical choices are a carefully crafted throwback to characteristics of Damon’s early work.

Wonderfully, neither actor attempts an impersonation per se, and both are adept at the physical mannerisms and vocal tricks that evoke the persona of their characters. Both display a bond and rivalry onstage to match that of their famous characters. They play that bond with a comic style that is simultaneously very funny and thought-provoking.

Dale has a knack for using the actors’ difference in height, energy and appearance to strengthen the language, often staging them in opposition. Given the script’s many references to the height difference between Damon and Affleck, this is a strong choice — very funny, and occasionally poignant. Dale shows a deep understanding of both the comic and very serious ideas presented.

The set is simple but specific, as befits both the script and the space at the Treehouse. Scenic Designer Merric Bower creates exactly what is needed — the shoddy, messy apartment of a 20-something slacker (Affleck) who dreams big but doesn’t put in the work. It looks simple, but it is carefully crafted and littered with open chip bags ready for consumption.

I wish to highlight Tech Director & Lighting Designer Luke Brooks. As a board member and co-founder of Willow Creek Theatre Co., this Iowa City native is making his mark on the area scene, and not for the first time. In his curtain speech for the show, he highlighted the company’s goal of providing an opportunity to help make Iowa City and the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids corridor an “artistic home” for professionals in the arts.

Seeing this show, I am reminded of the roots of lower budget theater: using limited resources to make an empowered performance that truly impacts the viewer. Producing shows that are more about the art itself, and a deeper connection with the audience, than the financial production value. It is a genuine act of art and love, both of which can be felt in the production.

Matt & Ben is Willow Creek’s inaugural performance. It runs this weekend only: Saturday night at 8 pm.m and Sunday at 2:30, at the Treehouse (327 S Gilbert St, Iowa City). Tickets are $10 for students, $15 general admission. It is an intelligent, ridiculously funny, adept production that is definitely worth seeing. As a theater lover, I can’t wait to see what Willow Creek puts forward next.

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