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Matt and Ben’ sweetly satirical taste of fame

Analise Lipari | Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Running last week at the DPAC’s Philbin Theater, “Matt and Ben” was a sweetly satiric one-act romp into the fictional private lives of its two famous protagonists when they happened upon “Good Will Hunting” – or rather, when “Will Hunting” happened upon them.

The play opened with Ben Affleck (Nathaniel Grams) and Matt Damon (Carly Vandewalle) in Ben’s apartment, as Ben painstakingly attempts to adapt J.D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” for the screen, line by literal line. The bantering relationship set up by Grams and Vandewalle here lent the play a fun, deeply felt camaraderie between the two that never let up, despite an erratic and hysterical fight scene, as well as visits from both Gwyneth Paltrow and Salinger himself (portrayed by Grams and Vandewalle, respectively).

Both the play’s action and sense of humor were jumpstarted by one unlikely event. After fighting with each other and the audience, Matt and Ben are shocked when a stuffed manila envelope, containing a certain verbose but inspired script, falls from the sky, out of the hands of fate and into Ben’s apartment.

What the two do with the work, and how it impacts their lives in the immediate and later future, were the issues at the center of “Matt and Ben,” and proved to be the basis of a great evening of theater.

The set of “Matt and Ben” was perfect for a Bostonian comedy, giving the impression of a Southie apartment with Fenway Park posters and an angular design that emphasized the action onstage. Littered with food wrappers, laundry, and a faded old couch, set designer Steve Hoeplinger’s set aptly fit its owners. The yellowish lighting also lent the apartment a more dingy, lived-in feel.

Along with this feel was the music chosen as an introduction to the play. Queen and the Killers greeted the ears of audience members and each song was interestingly bracketed by quotes from “Good Will Hunting,” lending the audience a better sense of the work and characters in question.

Using both dialogue and direct address to the audience, Grams and Vandewalle were able to use the play’s humor and their own talents to connect “Matt and Ben” with the crowd.

The challenge for the actors, then, was in portraying a real-life friendship between two of Hollywood’s best-known celebrities, while still being both true to the work and to their own interpretations.

“I think that with such a public figure, it’s impossible to not take the actual person into account,” Grams said. For him, watching the characters’ films helped him understand them, an effort reflected in his and Vanderwalle’s endearingly solid performances.

“I think we as an audience praise their friendship in real life,” Grams said. “And are captivated by their work that much more because we know there’s that real element there.”

In the end, it’s through that lens of good friends that “Matt and Ben” is best seen, and for all of the play’s zany comedy and tough discourse between its leads, it remains a work about the power of that bond in spite of everything else.

“I think if we can learn anything from ‘Matt & Ben,'” director Cameron Rains said. “it is that true friendship cannot be forged over coffee or a cell phone conversation, but over a lifetime.”

To Rains, “Matt and Ben” offers the example of Affleck and Damon in light of more than just comedic fun.

“Can it be written off as fluff comedy? No,” Rains said. “‘Matt & Ben’ reminds us of what a blessing a good friend can be and warns us to the dangers of taking such a gift for granted.”