Everyone from Hollywood moguls to Barbra Streisand came out last night (so to speak) for the Los Angeles reading of Dustin Lance Black’s play 8, drawn from the transcripts of the federal trial over whether the U.S. constitution allows for Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage in the state of California. In the beautiful and historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre, George Clooney, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, and Brad Pitt headlined an A-list cast that read a modified version of the play that was first performed last September in New York City.
“I felt after the New York version that I wanted to know the plaintiffs more, I wanted to know their personal stories more,” Black told EW after the show. “So I took out a few of the legal arguments that were a bit I guess redundant in a way, or at least they made the same point twice in two different ways. And I added more personal stories. Really, in the end, it’s the personal stories that change people’s minds.”
Director Rob Reiner — one of the founding board members, with Black, of The American Foundation for Equal Rights, one of the main organizations behind the Prop 8 case as well as the evening’s performance — said that over 200,000 people watched the performance stream live on YouTube. (You can watch the play yourself here.) Reiner explained that the groups funding the defense of Prop 8 have successfully prevented the video recordings of the 2010 federal trial from being broadcast, which is what led to Black condensing weeks of trial transcripts into a roughly 90-minute play. “There are productions that are being done all around the country,” Reiner told EW. “Some as readings, some as full productions. And I would ultimately like to do a film at some point on this [trial].” Would he be able to get George Clooney and Brad Pitt to star in it? “Probably not, unless we paid them lots of money.” But then he grinned. “I don’t know, maybe they’d do it. You never know. This was the easiest cast I’ve ever put together in my life.”
Judging from the audience’s response, that cast marshaled a rousing and moving performance of the material. Pitt, a last minute addition to the cast, brought a bemused understatement to the role of Judge Vaughn Walker, especially in his scenes with Kevin Bacon as the exasperated pro-Prop 8 counsel Charles J. Cooper, whose defense of the anti-gay marriage amendment offered testimony from only a single witness. John C. Reilly’s performance as that befuddled witness — David Blankenhorn, the founder of the Institute for American Values — was the comic highlight of the evening. (Reilly was set to play Judge Walker until Pitt joined the cast, at which point Reiner gave up the role of Blankenhorn for Reilly to play it.)
As the anti-Prop 8 co-counsels David Boies and Ted Olsen, George Clooney and Martin Sheen (respectively) brought a wry understatement and an electrifying vigor to their performances. Sheen’s fiery final summation especially evoked The West Wing‘s Jed Bartett. As the case’s official plaintiffs, White Collar‘s Matt Bomer and Glee‘s Matthew Morrison, and Jamie Lee Curtis and Christine Lahti all brought dignity to roles that, especially for Bomer and Morrison, still felt a bit under-written. Curtis and Lahti’s scenes with their characters’ twin sons (Jansen Panettiere and Bridger Zadina) made much more of an impression.
Chris Colfer (Glee), Rory O’Malley (The Book of Mormon), James Pickens, Jr. (Grey’s Anatomy), Yeardley Smith (The Simpsons) and Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Modern Family) all ably played witnesses for the plaintiffs. Former CNN anchor Campbell Brown stitched together the narrative as a kind of reporter/narrator. George Takei played a Prop 8 defense witness who backed out of his testimony after a disastrous deposition with David Boies. And gay rights activist Cleve Jones got into a great verbal sparring match with Glee‘s Jane Lynch, who took on the role of anti-gay marriage activist Maggie Gallagher with relish.