POSTED ON MARCH 18, 2009:
Good Will Fronting
Matt and Ben tells the story of the screenplay that launched two best friends into stardom
Gender Bender. You don't forget that you're watching two women play Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but you don't mind either. I think, if two men had been playing those roles, the play wouldn't have worked nearly as well.
Sara Cruncleton and Heather Sams invoked their male muses -- and perhaps caught up on the Hollywood tabloid gossip -- for their respective roles as Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in last weekend's opening of Matt and Ben at the Nightingale Theater.
The play, written by Mindy Kaling and Brenda Withers and debuted by the two in 2002 during the midst of the Matt and Ben craze, employs two actresses to tell the story of how a couple of nobody actors trying to make it in Tinseltown stumbled upon a script that would win them an Oscar and catapult them into international superstardom.
At least, that's how these ladies tell it.
Cruncleton and Sams portray Matt and Ben as two semi-imbeciles working out of Ben's Boston apartment, circa 1995. The place resembles a college frat pad, complete with leather couch, a floor littered with fast food remnants and beer cases, a bean bag chair and a makeshift desk constructed from a slab of wood and milk crates. On it, a desktop computer is barely visible through the clutter.
Matt is thoughtful and sincere, committed to his craft, with a mind to be a thespian. But he's a total wuss. Ben is charismatic and outgoing, charming but slightly stupid. He's got a penchant for Latin girls (a reference to Jennifer Lopez; the play was initially produced during the "Bennifer" phenomenon) and just wants to be famous.
The two are working on a film adaptation of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye when a manila envelope falls from the ceiling.
The two ponder what to do with its contents, a script titled "Good Will Hunting," which credits both their names, and is pretty much the best script either of them has ever read.
First, they decide it's a gift from God. Then, it's a curse.
Immediately Ben wants to make the movie and make millions. Matt is more hesitant, worried about plagiarism and putting together just the right team. He also wants to make sure Ben doesn't screw it up.
As they waver with what to do with the thing, they flashback to the past, giving the audience a little history into their friendship and proving that Kaling and Withers did their homework when writing the play.
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sams) visits Matt to tell him basically to lose his scruples and do whatever it takes to make it in Hollywood. Then, she falls in love with Ben's headshot. Later, Salinger appears to Ben via a riotous performance by Cruncleton, denying him rights to Catcher.
Throughout the play, the writers namedrop a who's who of bad actors and directors undeserving of their fame and fortune. It's an unapologetic parody of what it does or doesn't take to make it big in Hollywood. In the end, though, it's also a sincere homage to a lifetime of friendship.
Cruncleton and Sams are hilarious as Matt and Ben. While casually dressed as post-university males -- Cruncleton in khakis and a blue button-up and Sams in wind pants, a baseball jersey and backwards cap -- the two know they don't have to force masculinity to make their characters believable (although they've got the gestures and the stance down). You don't forget that you're watching two women play Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but you don't mind either. I think, if two men had been playing those roles, the play wouldn't have worked nearly as well.
At one point, when the two are reading lines from Good Will Hunting to see who will play Will, Sams sends the audience into uncontrollable guffaws with her portrayal first as Skyler (attempting, and failing miserably at, a British accent) and then as Will (a la Daniel Day Lewis in The Boxer, punctuating his last lines with the violent demolition of a plastic lawn chair) during the breakup scene in Skyler's apartment.
Cruncleton's moment came, as mentioned above, in her comical rendition of J.D. Salinger, and both women had the audience in stitches when their characters get into a fist fight, flailing limbs and insults in one another's general direction until Ben finally knocks Matt unconscious.
As well done as the big scenes, though, are the more subtle moments, where the writers' quick-witted and snippy dialogue is tossed back and forth between Cruncleton and Sams without much effort at all. Those quieter moments and the show's direction, by Randall Whalen, kept it from going over the top.
The play is presented by Theatre Pops, which was created in 1990 by David Valla to produce contemporary, cutting-edge theatre. Whalen operates the company now.
Cruncleton is one quarter of the driving force behind Nightingale Theater and can be found either on stage or behind the scenes of most of the shows produced there. She's a member of the Midwestern Theatre Troupe, the 50 Swats writers collective and the Old Crow Players.
Sams is also no stranger to the Nightingale stage, appearing in almost every Midwestern Theatre Troupe play produced since the Nightingale opened in 2000.
Matt and Ben continues this weekend, March 19-21 at 8pm at 1416 E. Fourth St. Tickets are $10, $8 for students and seniors. For more, go to www.nightingaletheater.com.
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