The Next Matt and Ben?

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Along with suggesting that success is random (a thematic motif in "Matt and Ben"), the show's creators maintain that artistic inspiration -- that transforming muse -- is equally elusive and, indeed, random.

"No matter how hard you work, if the creative process doesn't strike you at just the right moment, it's not going to happen." So asserts writer-actress Brenda Withers, co-writer and co-star of the aforementioned "Matt and Ben," a two-hander that bowed Off-Off-Broadway Aug. 11 at P.S. 122 and has just been extended through the end of the year. The piece was launched last year at the New York International Fringe Festival, where it won the Best Production Award.

"There is the belief that you are either primed for that great inspiration -- and the success that follows -- or you're not," Withers continues, "but sometimes it happens to the least likely people."

The least likely people she is referring to, specifically, are her title characters, the real-life Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, the young actors who became overnight sensations when their screenplay, "Good Will Hunting," won the Oscar.

Portrayed by Withers, 25, and co-conspirator Mindy Kaling, 24, Matt and Ben are a couple of posturing nitwits who are going nowhere fast -- that is, until a fully completed screenplay titled, you guessed it, "Good Will Hunting," literally falls into their laps from the ceiling. "Matt and Ben" offers a surreal spin, awash in pop-cult allusions, that is designed for an audience whose point of reference is People magazine and other like-minded purveyors of celebrity gossip.

"The biggest challenge we faced is that everyone likes Matt and Ben," says Mindy Kaling. "They are not media pariahs and we have been concerned that audiences might take it the wrong way."

Despite the fact that Withers and Kaling have become media darlings in their own right, they acknowledge that to some theatregoers, they may simply sound a tad jealous.

The affable women, who meet with us in a Lower East Side restaurant, are envious of Matt and Ben (who wouldn't be?) but not resentful. They are not competing with them, never even met them. Still, the fascination remains. So does the attraction. That said, they affirm that the two stars are metaphors at best.

"We poke fun not because they're hot shots, but because they can take it," Kaling notes. "Their level of success has elevated them. The truth is, we like and admire them. And if we're spoofing anyone -- and I think the term is overused in connection with what we're doing -- it's the public's unrealistic expectations about who becomes a star. There was even speculation when 'Good Will Hunting' came out that Matt and Ben couldn't have written it. These guys were just too regular." She admits, "It's mostly their movie and public images that we're poking fun at."

The parody elements aside, the two performers maintain that "Matt and Ben" is at bottom a story about a friendship able to sustain itself through a rocky collaboration and the vagaries of success and failure. It's a celebration -- admittedly in a darkly comic vein -- of two young men who came from nowhere and made it big time. "And yet, they were able to stay on track as collaborators and friends," says Withers.

Fiction, Not Bio-Drama

"Matt and Ben" began as an improvisational exercise two years ago, when Withers and Kaling -- recent Dartmouth College graduates -- were unemployed actors, hanging out in New York, killing time. Within short order, however, the sketch evolved and the co-creators suspected they were onto something -- not in the realm of bio-drama, but fiction, complete with almost fully imagined characters. There was minimal research, and impersonation was at no point the name of the game, although they checked out the movies and the various magazine clips friends sent them.

"We didn't want to copy Ben and Matt, but get into their skin in some way," says Withers. "And we've been told by people who know Matt and Ben that we sound and move just like them. If that has happened, it was unwitting. We were unfettered."

For dramatic purposes, the team took the liberty of making Matt more naturally talented, intelligent, and ambitious, while Ben becomes the less intellectually endowed, and certainly less driven. Nonetheless, he is the charismatic figure. "That may not be true," remarks Kaling, "but we felt one of them had to be the veneer and the other the driving force."

Perhaps nowhere is their unfettered imagination more embodied here than in the cross-gender casting, which doesn't attempt (even within these broad parameters) to physically match up the actresses with their characters.

Kaling, an animated and diminutive woman of East Indian descent, plays the tall, laid-back, and swaggering Affleck, while the willowy, easygoing Withers has cast herself as the short, driven, and intense Damon.

"Look, this is a surreal piece," notes Withers. "The plot is surreal and so is the whole conceit: two women playing men, two unknowns playing stars. All of that suggests the absurdity."

More to the point, "women playing men softens the edge," Kaling suggests. "I'd like to think we're wicked, as opposed to mean."

The most daunting aspect of playing the two men is their physicality, Kaling continues. "We're very lady-like and it was difficult to shed. Doing so was liberating."

Withers agrees, adding, "I've never felt as free to eat as much before a performance. In every other play, I've had to worry about fitting into a dress." Here, she is clad in loose -- very loose -- fitting slacks.

So what about the now much-publicized onstage punch? Was that liberating? Not really, the actresses contend, recalling how one recent evening, Kaling, carried away with Ben's jealous rage, punched Withers in the nose and, indeed, broke it. That was not in the script.

"It was an out-of-control moment," admits Kaling.

"Our first reaction was one of shock,' says Withers. "But it was also very funny. Here we had the only episode of violence between us -- best friends and onstage. My nose gets broken and it's covered in The New York Times."

As reported, the two actresses left the stage -- one bloodied -- and then returned to finish the play to thunderous applause.

"We learned that she could take it, I could dish it out, and we could still remain friends," observes Kaling.

Off to La-La Land

Indeed, the two women emphasize that their friendship is probably not that removed from Ben and Matt's (at least as presented in the Kaling-Withers version). But it is a far cry from the kind of friendship that women frequently share.

"There is a loyalty between male friends that may not exist between many women," says Withers. "We tend to believe -- and maybe it's often true -- that women, even those who are close friends, are jealous of each other, catty. Mindy and I are not jealous of each other. We admire each other's talents."

But then their talents and ambitions are not competitive, they underscore. Kaling does not think of herself primarily as an actress, but rather a writer. She is a fellow at the Warner Brothers Writer's Workshop and has her sights set on a screen and television writing career.

Withers is the classical actress whose credits include work at the Pearl Theatre, HERE Arts Center, and the Texas Shakespeare Festival. She muses, "I just want to act -- more roles, different kinds of roles. One of the main things I liked about playing Matt was the chance to play a man, although I wonder, what do audiences see? Do they think I can do anything else?"

At the end of the run, Withers and Kaling, who are evidently the recipient of more than a few showbiz nibbles (although they don't want to say what and jinx themselves), are headed off to Los Angeles.

"I want to be a millionaire with a large entourage!" proclaims Kaling, grinning, but not really joking at all.