On Saturday night, there were approximately seven men in the audience of some 1,300 at Los Angeles' Wilshire Ebell Theatre who weren't wearing neckties. Most of the collar garments were of the standard shirt-front variety, though there was a peppering of bow ties. For a staged reading? You'd have thought it was opening night at the Met, or perhaps a wedding — the right to marry whomever you wish being the evening's point.
So why the formality? The event was a fundraising reading, produced by the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER) and Broadway Impact, of Dustin Lance Black's agitprop drama 8. (Black, an Oscar winner for writing Milk, is an AFER founding board member.) The play received a similar presentation on Broadway in September.
The purpose was to raise funds for the court appeals to overturn California ballot initiative Proposition 8, a case that inevitably will go before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 2008, Proposition 8 passed in California, supported by sundry homophobes and “pro-family” types who employ the same kind of rhetoric as Rick Santorum. Proposition 8 banned same-sex marriages in the state from being legally binding; it was struck down as unconstitutional by a federal district court in 2010. The often fascinating transcripts from that latter case form the basis of Black's play. (The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also recently held that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, though the case likely will be appealed further.)
Let's start with who appeared in the Broadway reading in September: Morgan Freeman, Christine Lahti, Rob Reiner, Marisa Tomei, John Lithgow, Larry Kramer, Cheyenne Jackson, Anthony Edwards and Yeardley Smith, among others.
On Saturday night, the deliriously starstruck audience at the Saban Theatre saw on one stage George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Martin Sheen, Kevin Bacon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lahti, Jane Lynch, Reiner (here directing) and others.
This would explain the neckwear. We don't respect much, here in Hollywood, but we do respect our A-list.
Is admitting to a certain squeamishness while watching theater as a political rally for justice, performed for an audience of the already persuaded, akin to kicking a puppy? The play's structure is that of a trial, but there's almost no credible debate, because it's a monkey trial. The conclusion is foregone. The purpose is to raise money to help enforce that conclusion. The cause is fine, the play less so.
As Martin Sheen, reading the transcript of prosecuting attorney Theodore B. Olson, made closing arguments for the “constitutional right to marry,” a fellow in front of me leapt to his feet and applauded loudly. His companion, sitting next to him, sort of shrank into his seat, as though guilty by association. The cause of his embarrassment (I'm speculating) is that Olson was merely stating the obvious. So you don't really want to be seen with somebody getting all worked up over a transcript from, say, the Scopes Monkey Trial, which the arguments in this case vaguely resemble. The larger and more legitimate cause of embarrassment is belonging to a culture in which the right to marry whomever one wishes should even be an issue.
Black's play is mostly dedicated to dismantling the arguments of the Proposition 8 proponents (their doomsday television ads were beamed periodically through the reading), who found their case so decimated at the trial by Olson and prosecuting attorney David Boies (Clooney) that the defense team petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to ban the distribution of the trial's video recording. (The Supremes were happy to oblige, forcing the inquisitive public to rely on court transcripts for knowledge of the trial.)
Black's play, a dramatization of excerpts from those transcripts, was live-streamed by YouTube, in what might be described as a theater-activist WikiLeaks answer to the Supremes. Unfortunately, Black's version also includes scenes from the domestic lives of Sandy Stier and Kristin Perry (Curtis and Lahti) — Perry filed the civil rights lawsuit against then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the aftermath of the Proposition 8 vote. The lesbian couple has reared two sons (Bridger Zadina and Jansen Panettiere), and Black's depiction of the quartet resembles the closing scene of every family drama in which everything turns out well in the end — tears and hugging and the youth reluctantly admitting that being forced to watch the trial was just as edifying as soccer practice. This is one of several ham-fisted devices to press the absurdities of Proposition 8's proponents — in this case, that same-sex marriage is somehow antifamily.
The play's strongest and most sophisticated drama comes down to issues of evidence. The entire defense case is based on some imagined threat by same-sex marriage to the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage. (The divorce rate among baby boomers is now 50 percent, more women over the age of 50 aim to live out their lives alone than ever before recorded, and more than half of the children born between now and the end of the century will be born out of wedlock. This is the fault of gays?) In fact, the court testimony presented in Black's play reveals that the defense couldn't point to a single, credible social scientist who would be willing to testify in court as to the validity of that threat. Millions of Californians voted for Proposition 8, spurred on by the TV ad rhetoric underscoring that threat, but the defense could come up with only two expert witnesses, one of whom, David Blankenhorn (John C. Reilly, in a delightfully comedic, befuddled and yet insistent rendition), was seen here willingly switching sides midtestimony.
Chief Judge Vaughn Walker (a droll reading by Brad Pitt) was portrayed as growing increasingly sardonic and impatient with the notion that anybody's civil rights should be postponed because of some unknown, unproven fears. Defense attorney Charles Cooper (Kevin Bacon, with an unassuming posture that wavered between humility and humiliation, as though forced to defend Rush Limbaugh against his better judgment) actually suggested that the danger posed by same-sex marriage was a “given” that outweighed the need for actual evidence — a suggestion that clearly tested the judge's patience.
There's a deeper question provoked by the reading: whether there's greater merit to plays that provoke reflection and rumination, or plays that agitate for the kind of action that can help remedy woes, which in classically inspired works are merely exposed. There are those who feel that activist plays such as Black's are somehow less worthy than works that examine paradoxes and enigmas. The theater of political agitation has both national and international traditions worthy of respect: from Bertolt Brecht to Clifford Odets, from Václav Havel and Athol Fugard to Harold Pinter, from Heiner Müller to Arthur Miller, from Caryl Churchill to Tony Kushner.
One still has to ask a question that determines the merit of a theatrical event: Does the audience see the world differently after leaving the theater from when they walked in? Can art change the world? It can, in a good production of a complex play of advocacy by Pinter or Churchill or Kushner.
Not so here. Not the art on this stage. But one night of star power did raise $2 million for AFER. And that reality might help make the world a more enlightened place in 10 years than what it is today. And that's not a bad consequence of political theater.
(Editor's note: We have corrected the name of the theater as well as the name of the character Blankenhorn and the actor who played him. Thursday, March 8, 11 a.m.)