In the dark days before “Project Greenlight,” “The Bourne Identity” and the ever-infamous Bennifer, there was only a pair of unemployed writer/actors, Matt and Ben.
The two-man show that adopts the pair’s name affords a satirical look at the would-be Hollywood heartthrobs on their search for inspiration, or at least a really good script.
The show’s action begins as Matt (Andy Sandberg) and Ben (Andy Wagner) are rudely interrupted in Ben’s apartment when a miraculous packaged script falls from the sky — or more specifically, the ceiling. The script, of course, is Damon and Affleck’s Oscar-winning screenplay “Good Will Hunting,” but the future stars find themselves torn between superstition and ambition over what to do with the mysterious gift. The unfolding events test Matt and Ben’s friendship; one apparently riddled with power struggles, personality clashes, and good old competition and jealousy.
From the very beginning, the stars set out to clearly delineate the differences between their characters. Sandberg’s Matt is serious and driven, a guy whose ambitions and awareness of his own talent seem to have given him an intense superiority complex. By contrast, Wagner’s Ben is the gregarious funny man, providing the perfectly hilarious complement to his focused but uptight best friend.
Wagner’s portrayal of Ben also highlights many of the character’s shortcomings, such as his carelessness and his immaturity, in such a way as to elicit some sympathy or at least humor from the audience. With his cocky swagger and set jaw, Wagner comes close to perfecting Affleck’s demeanor (including all three of his facial expressions). Whether showing off by chugging a bottle of apple juice in a matter of seconds or burping the alphabet, he brings an endearing goofiness to the part without losing the satirical aspects written into the role. The result is a fairly dynamic character who comes across as imperfect but endearing — even to those who can’t stand Affleck in real life.
Sandberg, on the other hand, is somewhat unconvincing in his depiction of Matt. While his characterization of the part is strong and brings out Damon’s chief personality traits, it remains difficult to see him as actually being Matt Damon instead of just a doggedly determined wannabe actor. Sandberg has a decidedly strong stage presence and artfully conveys the role’s nuances, but his stature and voice inflections simply don’t recall Damon’s personality.
The dialogue of ‘Matt and Ben’ is filled with witty banter and inside jokes alluding to future girlfriends and blockbuster flicks. Any tabloid-savvy viewer is sure to savor these references, along with the characters’ physical humor and irreverent repartee. Each actor also takes a comic turn as another pop culture notable, featuring Sandberg as a crotchety old J.D. Salinger and Wagner in drag as Gwyneth Paltrow. However, the friendship between Matt and Ben remains uneven in a few scenes, perhaps because Wagner’s character is inherently more simplistic and thus shows emotion more easily. While Sandberg displays a certain fondness for Wagner in their lighter moments, he never approaches the same kind of affection in the show’s more serious scenes.
The set (designed by Sandberg, who also directed and produced the production) deserves plaudits for convincingly recreating a 20-something bachelor’s apartment in all of its careless chaos. Complete with a chip-strewn second-hand couch, a recycling bin overflowing with non-recyclables, and a box of open cupcakes on the fridge, the set fully transforms the space — a difficult feat given the limitations of the Stiles Little Theater.
The original cast of “Matt and Ben” featured two women in the title roles leading audiences to wonder what satirical undertones are lost without the cross-casting. Keeping in the vein of role-reversal, the two Andys will switch roles for next week’s performances. Although Sandberg said this decision was made “largely just for kicks” as a way to “play against type,” audiences might wonder whether there is additional merit to this artistic choice or whether it’s simply gratuitous. The role swap has yet to be rehearsed, so it’ll be anyone’s guess as to how it will play out in the second weekend of performances.