By Sandy Cohen / AP
Martin Sheen commanded the stage with his impassioned portrayal of an attorney arguing for gay-marriage rights; Jane Lynch inspired instant response as a vehement same-sex marriage opponent; Brad Pitt dazzled as a judge.
It was all part of the star-studded West Coast premiere of “8,” a play about the 2010 federal court fight against Proposition 8, the gay-marriage ban that California voters approved in 2008.
The performance Saturday at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles also featured George Clooney, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christine Lahti, George Takei, John C. Reilly, Chris Colfer, Matthew Morrison and Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
The play by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black made its Broadway debut last year in similar starry fashion. Saturday’s benefit performance was broadcast live on YouTube, where director Rob Reiner said it drew 200,000 viewers. He hopes it attracts more than a million before its weeklong online run ends. The play will also be staged around the country with local actors at colleges and community theaters.
“We want as many people as possible to see what happened inside that courtroom,” said Reiner, a founding member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which is helping fund the federal fight for marriage equality.
Relying largely on transcripts from court proceedings, “8” introduces viewers to the couples who challenged the California initiative, the attorneys who argued their case and a bumbling witness who spoke out against them.
One couple has two children together; the other wants to start a family; and a witness testifying in favor of the same-sex marriage ban said under oath that marriage equality was best for couples, kids and the country.
The real-life couples in the case — Sandy Stier (Curtis) and Kris Perry (Lahti), and Jeff Zarillo (Matt Bomer) and Paul Katami (Morrison) — and the attorneys — David Boies (Clooney) and Theodore B. Olson (Sheen) — were in the audience Saturday, along with director Brett Ratner, designer Diane Von Furstenberg and Clooney’s girlfriend, Stacy Keibler.
“We did put fear and prejudice on trial, and fear and prejudice lost,” Olson said after Reiner brought him on stage.
Olson, a noted conservative litigator, represented George W. Bush during the contentious Florida recount that decided the 2000 presidential election and later served as his solicitor general. Boies, a prominent liberal attorney, led Vice President Al Gore’s legal team in the recount.
Last month, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an earlier judge’s decision that found California’s proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage unconstitutional.
Reiner said he and Black decided to make a play and eventually a movie based on the Prop. 8 trial after proponents successfully petitioned to block cameras from the courtroom.
Saturday’s reading was held on a courtroom-like set, with eight chairs on each side and Pitt’s judge’s box in the center. Sheen and Clooney made for an impressive legal team, while Reilly cracked up the crowd as a verbose marriage expert.
“I knew that Martin Sheen was going to get a huge ovation after that speech because we applauded for him in rehearsal,” said Ferguson, adding that he wanted to be in “8” as soon as he heard about it. “John C. Reilly did a brilliant job with his role but I loved seeing Jane Lynch play such a villainous, homophobic creature. It really felt like she was sticking it to the man.”
Reilly said he was moved by the material, and even more so by its message.
“I think America will be a better place and we can hold our chins up a little higher in this country when everyone is treated (equally),” he said. “These aren’t gay rights or special rights, they’re basic rights that people who love each other should have.”
Reilly was thrilled to participate in the play, and even took on a last-minute role change when Pitt signed on. Reilly was to play the judge, but instead jumped into a role that Reiner originally was going to play.
Said the director: “I took one for the team.”