By Christopher Squier
In a lighthearted, heavily comedic hour of straight up bickering and roommate love, Anika Manzoor ’13 and Zoe Rodriguez ’13 take on a number of multilayered and often betrousered roles in the short play “Matt and Ben.”
The play, originally written and performed by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers in 2003, replaces the two costarring male roles with women in a matter-of-fact and drag-forward exploration of role-playing in theater.
“Since then, they’ve made it so you have to request special permission to do it with two men,” said Amanda Borson ’13, the director of “Matt and Ben.” “It’s now typically done in drag.”
The two writers and college best friends reimagined the erstwhile lives of now-celebrity namesakes Matt Damon and Ben Affleck working on their own first movie script.
“In 2003, it was a weird time when Ben Affleck was dating J. Lo. They were more infamous than respected, and there was a lot of question of why are these guys famous?” Borson said. “[Kaling and Withers] wanted to take the celebrities down a notch in a loving way, and explore how [Damon and Affleck] used to be just two kids.”
What results in Borson’s Wall Theatre adaptation is a performance in which the actresses play multiple roles based on these stories. Manzoor must play both Mindy Kaling and Ben Affleck, with Rodriguez reenacting Withers’ Matt Damon—of course, with their own spins.
These switches are not the extent to which the actresses are asked to don different characters throughout the play. Manzoor appears in bright red pumps and a long, flowing scarf about halfway through, leaving the audience to question who is dressing up as a woman: Manzoor or Affleck?
The ambiguities, like all the conflicts in the play, are resolved quickly when Manzoor exclaims that she, of course, is Gwyneth Paltrow—if you didn’t think there were enough celebrities in the mix already. However, to make it even better, Manzoor as Paltrow finds herself enormously attracted to the photo she finds of herself as Affleck and mindlessly rushes offstage. Not all the celebrities, it seems, receive the same loving treatment as Matt and Ben do.
Some of the funniest moments came across in the terrible accents Rodriguez and Manzoor gave to Damon and Affleck, especially when they trade their Boston accents for British ones, with which Damon sounded more like a screeching tomcat than a Brit.
The premise of “Matt and Ben” originates with the idea that Damon and Affleck are at work lifting the dialogue straight out of Catcher in the Rye in a cunning ploy to take the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay, when an original and well-written screenplay falls seemingly straight from the ceiling—or from God, as Damon suspects. Damon and Affleck find that they themselves seem to have written it.
In general, the play is just a sneak peak into the messy and disorganized bachelor lives of the future celebrities. We watch them lie about each other, lie to each other and smash each other’s belongings, Tom and Jerry style. This interaction is occasionally perforated by moments of narrative monologue, as the celebrities explain the dramatic events that took place that day.
The stress-induced breakdown of their relationship actually becomes relatively intense, injecting the play with a more grave, underlying reality: not all relationships are perfect, and this one certainly isn’t.
However, the uneasy tension is resolved in the kind of heartwarming ending typical of comedy shows; the audience can leave the theater unburdened and satisfied.
In directing the show, Borson was well prepared. She had known about “Matt and Ben” for a number of years, but really found inspiration to stage the show after reading Mindy Kaling’s memoir over the summer.
“[Kaling] talks a lot about the show, and it was always in my mind as a really funny story,” Borson said. “I think it speaks to the fact that women can be funny and play funny roles and it doesn’t have to be a big to-do, which I really liked about it.”
Moreover, the play brings a little extra diversity to Grinnell’s theater programming, both in terms of comedy and gender.
“I think in one way, I’m just more drawn to the comedies and there aren’t as many chances for comedies on campus, so I thought it would add something to the theater repertoire this season,” Borson said. “But, also, I was intrigued by the opportunity to make a show that is really female-driven, even if the content of the show isn’t: having a female director, having two females actors, having a female designer, that was very important to me.”
Aside from Borson as director, the cast is supported by Alice Nadeau ’13, stage and costume designer and Ian Saderholm ’15, light designer.
“Matt and Ben” will run through the weekend, with performances at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available in the Bucksbaum box office.