Affleck! Penny Seats Theatre Company's "Matt & Ben" satirizes with good will
The Penny Seats Theatre Company has never been afraid to produce shows that are daring, out of the mainstream, or sometimes both at once. The troupe's upcoming production, Matt & Ben, written by Mindy Kaling of The Office and The Mindy Project fame, with her friend and The Office writer Brenda Withers, combines both of these elements. The play, set in 1995, tells a hilarious story: then struggling actors/writers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, receive a fortuitous boon when a script (which becomes Good Will Hunting, the movie which launched both of their careers) falls from the sky into the apartment they share.
Kaling and Withers, who starred as Affleck and Damon respectively, in the original Off-Broadway production of Matt & Ben, wrote the satire with the intention that the two male roles be played by women. This, combined with the absurdity of the plot, creates an evening of theatre that is sure to have the audience thinking, considering social norms, and laughing uproariously, all at once.
I spoke with Allison Megroet and Allyson Miko, who will play Matt and Ben in the Penny Seats production, which opens at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant in Ann Arbor on April 5.
Q: How did you each hear about this play, and what excited you about it? Did you know each other before you auditioned for the show?
Megroet: Mat [Pecek], the director, encouraged me to audition for the show. We acted in Waterworks Shakespeare in the park together last summer and I was excited to work with him again. I didn't know Allyson before but I'm so glad to have met her. I couldn't have asked for a better Ben!
Miko: I read Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? where she talked about the process of writing Matt & Ben, and my curiosity grew from there. I fell in love with the idea of a two-woman play about male friendship. I did not know Allison before auditioning for the show, but I haven’t done a lot of scripted theatre in the area.
Q: Have either of you worked with Penny Seats before? In what ways is the experience of working with them different from other theatre companies you’ve worked with?
Miko: I have not worked with Penny Seats previously but at least this show has felt like there was a lot of creative freedom that I haven’t always experienced with other companies.
Megroet: This is my first time working with Penny Seats; the experience has been amazing! Things have been very organized and communication is solid. I am especially thankful for our stage manager Alex, he's worn a lot of hats in this process and he wears each one perfectly.
Q: The play will be performed at Conor O’Neill’s pub. Do either of you have experience performing in non-traditional theatre settings like this? What do you think that will add to the show?
Megroet: I've never done dinner/bar theatre but I think it's a perfect setting for this; I think it'll really draw people into the show. It's pretty interactive, there's a lot of breaking the fourth wall. I'm thinking the atmosphere will be relaxed enough where our audience feels invited into the action with us.
Miko: I have performed in non-traditional theatre settings before but I’ve never done a dinner theatre type deal. I am so excited because I think it’s going to lend a whole new energy to the experience. It’s the perfect show for a crowd that’s been mildly loosened by alcohol.
Q: Am I right that you both grew up during the 90’s, the time during which this play is set? If so, what is it like to do a play in a time period that you were alive for, but is squarely in the past, with clothing, entertainment and other elements that are definitely its own?
Megroet: I love it. Sometimes I wish I'd been a teen or young adult in the '90s. The general feeling of that time holds a special place in my heart even though I was born in '91 so I don't quite remember a lot of it. It was my early childhood. I wasn't much into pop culture, I was more in my own imaginative world. In recent years, I've become more familiar with the style, behaviors, and aesthetic of the '90s that I felt completely uninvolved in at the time, being a small child.
Miko: I was born in 1989 so my memories of the '90s are still pretty vivid. It’s exciting to do what I guess is technically a period piece in a time I remember being alive. There is a level of nostalgia for a time that is placed before social media ran life but still feels familiar.
Q: Not only are you playing characters of a different gender, you’re playing somewhat exaggerated versions of two well-known celebrities before they were famous. How do you balance these two very different tasks in the same play?
Miko: Going into it, I had to accept that there is no one who is going to be convinced I am Ben Affleck and that gave me some relief. I have focused more on capturing the energy of the character, which has made the process of acting as a man much easier. The individual challenges of playing a famous actor and playing the opposite gender have actually complimented one another.
Megroet: I always enjoy playing male roles. I get to explore a part of myself that doesn't come out on a day-to-day basis. There's a certain brashness that comes with playing these roles, manspreading, mansplaining, bro-ing it up, being messy, and finding out what honesty sounds like coming from a more masculine place in myself. It's enlightening coming at the situations in the play from that perspective. It has been a challenge to balance being a caricature and finding those honest moments in the play. But I think we've found a balance. And going from joking, to fighting, to hugging it out from one scene to the next keeps things interesting for sure.
Q: What are some of the rewards and challenges of doing a two-person play?
Megroet: Two person plays, as I see it, put a magnifying glass on a power struggle. Paring a story down to two people in one room really puts motives into focus. But it's also a partnership; a show with just two people, it's one long trust fall.
Q: Why should people come see this show?
Miko: Matt & Ben is a hilarious show but it also has this heart to it that you don’t find enough in stories revolving around male friendship.
Emily Slomovits is an Ann Arbor freelance musician, theater artist, and writer. She plays music with her father and uncle (aka Gemini) and others, is a member of Spinning Dot Theatre, and has performed with The Encore Musical Theatre Company, Performance Network, and Wild Swan Theater.
“Matt & Ben” plays April 5-20 on Thursday-Saturday at Conor O’Neill’s Irish Pub and Restaurant, 318 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $12; dinner and the show are $25. For more information, please visit pennyseats.org.