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Good Jill hunting

Good Jill hunting

Suspending gender disbelief
Since bagging the Academy Award for their Good Will Hunting screenplay, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck have garnered much media hype and speculation regarding both their chummy collaboration and their close friendship.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre and entertaining of these offerings is Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers' Off-Broadway sensation, Matt And Ben, directed by David Warren and currently playing at the Poor Alex Theatre until Sun, Nov 14.

The play is a hilarious fictionalization of how two outwardly unremarkable actors came to write the intricately nuanced, award-winning screenplay.

Matt And Ben is set entirely in the latter's tiny, filthy apartment - a perfect study in post-frat boy sloth by designer Michael Gianfrancesco. The two quibble amongst piles of dirty laundry and girlie pinups, while attempting to write an adaptation of the JD Salinger classic Catcher In The Rye.

Well, not write, so much as plagiarize directly from the book, with Damon hilariously spelling out the longer words for typist Affleck, who rationalizes: "Adaptation is the sincerest form of flattery."

It's during this copy session that a script magically drops onto the cluttered, grimy coffee table (the set is filled with such perfectly horrific pieces). Affleck immediately seizes upon this heaven-sent opportunity with glee, while the circumspect Damon questions their deserving such beatific bounty.

The play turns on this plot device quite cleverly, as Damon struggles between feelings of responsibility towards the bumbling, none-too-bright Affleck, and his own growing success as a dramatic actor. "How much longer do I have to take care of him for?" asks Damon, losing patience with his less-skilled but loyal friend.

While Matt And Ben pokes fun at Damon's noted obsessiveness in preparing for a role (dramatic weight loss, overzealous exercise), it's far harsher in its characterization of Affleck as a clueless buffoon. Flirtations with homophobia in the script (Affleck frequently bellows "that's gay" with little provocation) are a bit at odds with the real-life pair's outspoken support of equal rights for homos.

However, this does nothing to mitigate the note-perfect hilarity that Jane Spence brings to her role as the bombastic Affleck. After a few initial missteps, where it seems the misbegotten love child of Ralph Kramden and Fred Flintstone had landed on stage, Spence quickly abandons bug-eyed shtick to sketch out a soundly masculine and clever character full of brash confidence and surprising depth.

Her brief cameo later on as Gwyneth Paltrow is gut-bustingly funny. When offered food, she replies: "No thanks, I never touch the stuff," in brilliant deadpan.

As Damon, Second City alumnus Hilary Doyle is absolutely delightful. Gawky, frenetic and borderline neurotic, she nails the actor's mannerisms and facial expressions with ease.

The biggest success of this show, though, is both actresses' ability to transcend their gender convincingly enough for the audience to buy into the idea that it's really two men on stage. They do this in spades, creating believable, appealing characters, with nary a moment of self-consciousness or over-acting.

Which is certainly more than can be said of their subjects.

MATT AND BEN.
$20-$35. 8pm. Tue, Wed, Fri & Sat.
7pm & 10pm. Thu. 4pm. Sat. 2pm. Sun.
Till Sun, Nov 14.
Poor Alex Theatre.
296 Brunswick Ave.
(416) 872-1111.
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