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Matthew Morrison, Jesse Tyler Ferguson join '8' reading

January 17, 2012 |  8:03 pm

Morrison

Convincing major actors to commit to a theater project in Los Angeles isn't always the easiest sell. But "8," the play by Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, is proving to be the exception to the rule, with a cast that will feature George Clooney and a host of television stars including Matthew Morrison of "Glee" and Jesse Tyler Ferguson of "Modern Family."

"8," which will have a one-night reading at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre on March 3, deals with the 2010 federal court case Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, which sought to overturn Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California. The performance will serve as a benefit for the American Foundation for Equal Rights, the nonprofit group that brought the case to court.

The play reading, which is expected to raise $2 million, also shines a light on the fundraising needs of an organization that is waging an expensive and ongoing court battle. The judge in the case ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional, but the decision has been appealed.

Assembling the cast was the work of Black, who is a founding board member of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, and Rob Reiner, another board member who will also direct the reading.  Clooney received a call directly from Reiner asking him to participate, according to the organization. The actor will play David Boies, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case.

Morrison, who plays Will Schuester on "Glee," said in an interview that he had been working with Black on a separate screen project when the writer asked him to join the reading of "8."

"I grew up in theater and I have a lot of gay friends who've gotten married," Morrison said during a break from taping an episode of "Glee." Morrison will play Paul Katami, one of the plaintiffs. Jane Lynch, his "Glee" co-star, will play Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of National Organization for Marriage, a group that is working to fight the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Ferguson, who plays Mitchell Pritchett on "Modern Family," said that he originally turned down an offer to do the play.

"I initially said no. I wanted to be in the audience to watch the show myself," said the actor. But Ferguson said he changed his mind earlier this week at a Golden Globes party at the Sunset Tower in West Hollywood, where he met Clooney and Black, "who pressured me to say yes."

"8" is based mostly on transcripts from the court case. Video from the case has not been made publicly available.

The money raised from the reading will go toward fighting the court battle as well as funding various public awareness campaigns, said Chad Griffin, the board president of the  American Foundation for Equal Rights. He said the actors are donating their time for the play.

The foundation spends most of its money on legal costs, according to tax documents. In the fiscal year that ended in March 2010, the group's legal expenses amounted to $2.1 million. It paid $1.7 million in fees to the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which was hired to fight the Proposition 8 battle in court.

The group also has retained the services of the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner. Fighting the legal case "is an effort that takes tremendous resources," Griffin said.

The foundation differs from other gay marriage groups, such as Equality California, which has used pro-bono legal services in the past.

"8" had a similar one-night reading in New York last year at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre. Christine Lahti appeared in the New York reading and will return for the L.A. version in the role of Kris Perry, one of the plaintiffs.

"It was much more moving than I thought it would be," Lahti said. "There's a lot of legalese in it, a lot of it that I didn't understand." She said she was surprised by the amount of humor in the play. "When people try to defend prejudice, you sound silly," she said.

Other cast members include Matt Bomer, George Takei, Yeardley Smith, Campbell Brown, Rory O'Malley and Cleve Jones.

"8" is also being licensed for university and school performances around the country. There are also readings planned at the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Jamie Lee Curtis will appear in the L.A. reading in the role of Sandy Stier, one of the plaintiffs. The actress said she knew Reiner through her husband, Christopher Guest, who worked with the director on "This Is Spinal Tap" and "The Princess Bride."

Curtis said she wanted to be a part of "something that the American public has been prohibited from seeing. The idea is to get the message out to as many people as possible."

RELATED:

George Clooney joins L.A. cast of Prop. 8 play

'8,' a play about Proposition 8, debuts March 3 in L.A.

From a California courtroom to Broadway: A reading of '8'

-- David Ng

Photo: Matthew Morrison. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

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