‘Matt & Ben’ satirizes gender roles in comedy

Despite relying on gender tropes, 'Matt & Ben,' written, directed and acted by women, was a turn toward female-driven comedy. Arjun Kakkar/Photo Editor
Despite relying on gender tropes, ‘Matt & Ben,’ written, directed and acted by women, was a turn toward female-driven comedy. Arjun Kakkar/Photo Editor

In her directing debut last weekend, Fatima Anaza ’18 brought Matt & Ben to Currier Ballroom as part of the Cap & Bells season. The satire, written by playwrights and college best friends Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers before they rose to fame, imagines young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s quest to write an Oscar-winning movie before they were famous. However, it is luck, not hard work, that ends up bringing Affleck and Damon to stardom. The script of Good Will Hunting falls from the sky, landing in a cluttered apartment, and drives a story about rivalry, trust and friendship. The two-person cast of Phoebe Mattana ’18 and Madeline Gilmore ’15 gave strong performances in the title roles.

The paradox of the play – grown female actors playing decidedly boyish characters – was salient upon entering the ballroom. To get to their seats the audience filed past Gilmore and Mattana, who sat on the couch, long hair in buns, manspreading and snacking on junk food. Both actors maintained their masculine mannerisms throughout the 75-minute play, which served as a consistent, if hackneyed, source of humor.

The set, too, contributed to the “boys are just so gross it’s hilarious” trope. The couch was tattered. Half-eaten food and knick-knacks littered the space. As Mattana’s Matt carried in a pizza and Gilmore’s Ben wished for a gaming console, I pictured the playwrights yelling, “Get it? … Because they’re actually women!” It was funny to see Gilmore threaten to burp the alphabet and Mattana chug Gatorade, but the humor implicit in cross-dressing, or so it seemed to me, may have been depreciated since Kaling and Withers opened Matt & Ben more than a decade ago.

If the plot itself has lost some of its punch, though, Anaza revitalized the story in her choices. Gilmore was perfectly cast. She had the audience doubled over as she danced with a tambourine, impersonated a ditzy Gwyneth Paltrow and called her co-star “Fat Damon.” Mattana was a more serious counterpart to Gilmore’s doofus. In her first performance at the College, Mattana juggled Matt’s contradictions well: endearing selfishness, conditional loyalty and short-sighted intelligence. Both actors successfully broke the fourth wall, at times delivering monologues directly to the audience.

And this was just one example of the show’s self-conscious performativity. Anaza sprinkled reminders that Matt & Ben was a play, not real life. At the top of the show, Anaza strode into Matt and Ben’s living room, welcomed the crowd, dropped the script that set the play in motion, and returned to her seat. Later on, Anaza’s entrymate walked on stage to hand the actors a guitar. Such pell-mell entrances and exits blurred the boundary between the characters’ world and ours. I wondered whether or not these were directorial choices or merely a reflection of my own urge to see metaphor where it did not exist. Regardless, this blending ultimately added interesting fractals to the plot. At one point, Matt accuses Ben of living in a fantasy world. Coming from Anaza’s internally inconsistent set, Mattana’s delivery of “that’s reality” was imbued with irony.

The most exciting scene of the play came at the conclusion, when Matt and Ben’s rivalry came to blows. (Boys will be boys!) The fight scene managed to be well-choreographed, humorous and realistic. The only problem was the seating arrangement, which kept some audience members from seeing the action without craning their necks.

Beyond directing actors and blocking scenes, Anaza, with the help of stage manager Web Farabow, was her own design team. Making the most of her budget, she created the absurdist world that shifted temporalities and rendered the characters’ fantasies incarnate. The anachronistic set, home to both a ’50s-era rotary phone and a laptop from the ’90s, reflected the plot’s non-linear relationship between past, present and future. The lighting and sound design were minimal but adequate, and, in any event, overshadowed by the actors’ wit and talent.

It was refreshing to see female-driven comedy. Women-written, woman-directed and women-acted – perhaps a first-time occurrence in the history of  theater and comedy at the College – it was only a shame Matt & Ben’s humor was still dependent on the stories of men.