Matt & Ben – theatre review

The 5 & Dime Theatre group opened a two-weekend run of the satirical comedy “Matt & Ben” on February 28, which will run through March 8 at The Pangea Live, 955 North Liberty Street, in downtown Jacksonville. This one-hour/one-act play, which debuted in 2002 at a Fringe Festival, was written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers, two young actresses, who also played the two characters of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Having seen it, we have concluded that there are three groups of theatre goers who will enjoy this bit of tomfoolery (described by Director Juan Uzueta as a “Bromance”) the most: fans of Saturday Night Live skits, fans of TV comedy sitcoms, and devoted followers of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, fans who know their biographies and history together.

The play is set in Ben’s apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. At this point in their careers, the two friends have only a few films on their resumes and have appeared in mostly smaller roles. They are working on an adaptation of “Catcher in the Rye,” even though they don’t have the rights to it. Suddenly, from above, a complete movie script for “Good Will Hunting,” with their names listed as co-authors, drops at their feet; they conclude it must have been sent by God.

Here is where some background in the program would have been helpful for today’s audiences. Did you know that the two have been friends since childhood school? And while you have doubtless seen them in a number of films (both are A-listed performers, with Matt appearing 57 films and Ben in 48 to date), do you remember the 1997 film? Damon and Affleck did, of course, write the screenplay for that film and specified that they be cast in the leading roles. The film won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and is considered a major factor in furthering their careers, which continue growing in stature.

The remainder of the play is filled with allusions. Gwyneth Paltrow visits Matt, and later J. D. Salinger makes an appearance with Ben. Two very talented local actresses play all the roles, with Kat McLeod cast as Matt and Abigail Sanez as Ben. They are line-perfect throughout, as they argue, sing, and joke with each other and at times run maniacally around the stage while unraveling the playwrights’ perception of the friendship of Matt and Ben.

Director Juan Carlos Unzruta is accustomed to directing much larger casts as the Educational Outreach Director at Theatre Jacksonville, where he produces plays with young theatre students. He is also a very talented vocalist and actor, who appears frequently on our local stages. In his directing debut with The 5 & Dime, he used several short black out segments to give some of the bits their own identity, as when Matt and Ben reminisce about high school days, and these worked quite well. We’re looking forward to future directorial efforts.

We found it helpful to watch “Good Will Hunting” prior to attending the show. It was especially helpful when a short scene based on one from the film was enacted, where Damon’s character, a working-class math genius, is parting with his English girlfriend who is going to California; it will be much easier to understand this segment if you have seen the movie.

The Man Cave set design byBrian Grant captured the driven optimistic spirit of the two young men, with an original poster from “School Ties,” a 2002 film in which both appeared, a comfortable shabby couch, and an end table and shelving created from milk bottle cartons. The costumes by the actresses had them wearing casual men’s attire.

The Pangea Live graciously welcomed the theatre company back, despite being in the process of a large interior remodeling project. We did miss the terrific popcorn and nachos we had in previous visits, but we understand they will be back in the future. Pangea is a very comfortable venue, with adult beverages, just-baked cookies, and bottled water available for the audience.

About Dick Kerekes & Leisla Sansom

The Dual Critics of EU Jacksonville have been reviewing plays together for the past nine years. Dick Kerekes has been a critic since 1980, starting with The First Coast Entertainer and continuing as the paper morphed into EU Jacksonville. Leisla Sansom wrote reviews from time to time in the early 80s, but was otherwise occupied in the business world. As a writing team, they have attended almost thirty Humana Festivals of New America Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky, and many of the annual conferences sponsored by the American Theatre Critics Association, which are held in cities throughout the country. They have reviewed plays in Cincinnati, Chicago, Miami, Sarasota, Minneapolis, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sarasota, San Francisco, Shepherdstown, and The Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford, Massachusetts. They currently review about one hundred plays annually in the North Florida area theaters, which include community, college, university, and professional productions.