People's Branch offers up a priceless performance in ‘Matt & Ben’

by Joshua T. Dies

Who would have thought Matt Damon and Ben Affleck could be so funny? 

Certainly not me. These days a good laugh is pretty rare, and a hearty belly-laugh is priceless. That’s why The People’s Branch Theater has the best deal in town this month with the Tennessee debut of “Matt and Ben,” an off-Broadway play written by the head writers of NBC’s Emmy-award winning “The Office."

Matt and Ben is the fictional story of two down and out best friends who have the divine fortune of a brilliant movie script falling from the ceiling of their shitty Boston apartment. The hilarity that ensues is a brilliant look at young male behavior, the concept of fame, and Hollywood itself. There’s even room for a decidedly Hollywood twist. Matt and Ben are played by girls.

When I first heard this concept, I’ll admit I rolled my eyes a bit. It sounded like another crude gay joke – “Wouldn’t it be funny to have girls being all feminine playing Matt and Ben? Like THEY WERE GAY!!” Forgive me while I vomit--not only at the concept that two people who deny the rumors, have both married and had children are obviously lying about their sexuality--but also at the misconception that gay men and straight women are identical except for the location of their vagina. To me this is like saying elephants and cars are identical except for the position of their trunks. 

I should have had more faith. The question of their sexuality is only hinted at vaguely, and the absolute brilliance of casting women in the leads only stresses what we would have taken for granted had males been onstage. Without the easy familiarity of watching men being men, “Matt and Ben” asks us to watch women be men, if only to highlight male behavior. This ingenious devise has been in place since the show’s inception. The playwrights Brenda Withers and Mindy Kaling also originated the roles, and the gender-bend stuck. With so much of the play’s statement springing from this the casting would have to be rock solid. 

Co-directors Matt Chiorini and Matthew Bassett couldn’t have picked three better actresses to guide you through the fanciful melee. Tia Shearer has the look, the moves, and even Mr. Damon’s sheepish grin down to a tee, with the slapstick grace of Jerry Lee Lewis. Her heartfelt asides to the audience felt honest and genuine despite the satire of the piece. Amanda Bailey as the macho dim-witted Affleck is side-splitting and lovable. Tamiko Robinson shines in a variety of small roles, including an angel, J. D. Salinger, and a slightly psycho Gwyneth Paltrow. Every time she appeared onstage she infused the production with energy.

But while Good Will Hunting falls from the ceiling onstage, I doubt this play fell from anyone’s rafters. The dialogue gets a bit sluggish in parts, most often while Matt argues with himself about what to do with the divine gift. Thankfully the character is never onstage alone for very long. Bailey and Shearer have great chemistry, and manage to keep the story moving in these slow spots towards the more rewarding scenes. 

The lighting was kept to a minimum, never overpowering, but also not overused and distracting. The entire production succeeds at allowing the cast to shine and introduce the audience to a cleverly written play.  

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