- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003

Say the names Matt and Ben and even people who don’t subsist on a steady diet of celebrity gossip will probably know you’re talking about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

That’s what the stars of “Matt & Ben” have found at sold-out performances of their off-Broadway play.

Mixing fact, fiction and tabloid fodder, the play takes place in the mid-1990s — long before Mr. Affleck’s highly publicized engagement to Jennifer Lopez — when he and Mr. Damon were struggling actors and writers.

The main joke is that the script for “Good Will Hunting,” which co-starred the longtime friends and earned them a screenwriting Oscar in 1998, literally falls from the ceiling of Mr. Affleck’s apartment, the decor of which can best be described as frat-boy chic.

Then there are the actors portraying them — actresses, actually.

Brenda Withers plays Mr. Damon and Mindy Kaling plays Mr. Affleck. That they’re women in drag is only part of the conceit (though they’re both so good, you forget the gender bend after awhile). In another twist, Miss Withers is tall and rangy like Mr. Affleck, while Miss Kaling is short and compact like Mr. Damon … and she’s of Indian descent.

“The point of it was not to do, like, an ‘SNL’ kind of sketch. Obviously, we can’t play these characters with any kind of accuracy,” said Miss Kaling, 24. “I’m, like, an Indian girl.”

“Matt & Ben” affectionately skewers the actors for their oft-reported personas: that Mr. Damon, star of “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” is the serious actor of the two, and that Mr. Affleck, who’s made blockbusters (“Pearl Harbor” and “Armageddon”) and bombs (“Gigli”), merely coasts on his looks and personality.

The actresses, however, said they can relate to them because they’re also best friends who collaborated on a script. (“Matt & Ben” originally appeared at the 2002 New York International Fringe Festival.)

Yet Miss Withers, 25, acknowledged with a laugh, “I still feel like we really have no idea who they are. A lot of what went into the characters was our process, our situation — being friends and writing together.”

People think they know Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck, though, because of the abundance of media coverage they receive.

“They’re different enough, it seems, that you think, like, ‘Oh, I have so much more in common with one or the other,’ even if you don’t know anything about them,” Miss Kaling said. “It’s funny, when we first thought of the title, we thought, ‘Will people actually get it?’”

People did, which often prompts the question — “Are you a Matt girl or a Ben girl?” — which the actresses pondered recently over an egg salad sandwich (for Miss Withers) and a liverwurst sandwich (for Miss Kaling) at a Midtown theater hangout.

“I think both of us are sort of constantly fighting over Matt in our, like, made-up world where they would be having to choose between us,” Miss Kaling said. “Ben is, like, tall and strapping. Matt’s cerebral.”

“I … ,” Miss Withers hesitated. “I mean, yeah, I love Matt.”

“Brenda’s a Casey girl,” Miss Kaling joked, referring to Mr. Affleck’s younger brother, Casey Affleck, who had a small role in “Good Will Hunting” and whose photo hangs on the wall of the “Matt & Ben” set.

“I think it goes back and forth,” Miss Withers said.

One thing the women can agree on: They’d both be mortified if Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck ever showed up for a performance.

“I hope if they come, they come very quietly and don’t tell us,” Miss Withers said.

It looks like they have nothing to worry about. Even though there’s talk of extending the play past its six-week run, scheduled to end Sept. 6., Mr. Damon’s publicist didn’t return a phone call for comment about the play; Mr. Affleck’s publicist, Ken Sunshine, said the actor knows about it but hasn’t seen it.

“We have no thoughts or reactions. I wouldn’t bet on them showing up,” Mr. Sunshine said. “I think, frankly, we’re trying not to emphasize the circus atmosphere surrounding his celebrity right now.”

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