A lawyer named Roy Cohn sits in his legal office with a young aspiring lawyer named Joe Pitt. Joe Pitt sits uncomfortably while Roy Cohn takes a series of phone calls. Cohn wishes he were an “octopus.”
Roy Cohn was a real-life political figure: a high-powered lawyer and friend of the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy. As it’s connected to Cohn, the octopus here seems to be a symbol of corruption and control.
Cohn talks to a client whose court date he missed. Cohn claims he missed the date because he has clients in Haiti.
To audiences in the 90s, the mention of Haiti would have immediately recalled the AIDS crisis. Haitians were prevented from entering the U.S. because they were considered “AIDS carriers”—a restriction later found to be based on nothing but racist bias.
Cohn next takes a phone call from a judge’s wife—he tells Joe Pitt that the judge is a “geek” and a Nixon appointee. Cohn arranges theater tickets for the judge’s wife. Cohn tells her that she wouldn’t like the play La Cage aux Folles, but he also tells Joe that the play is the “best thing in Broadway.” Pitt claims he hasn’t seen it.
This section adds another allusion to homosexuality. La Cause aux Folles is a famous play about gay people pretending to be straight—a fitting work to bring up in Angels in America, which is partly about hiding one’s sexuality from view.
In between calls, Cohn asks Joe how he likes the appeals court. Joe says he enjoys the responsibility. Cohn yells at one of his young employees over the phone, cursing him out. To Cohn’s surprise, Joe tells Cohn not to take the lord’s name in vain, since Joe is a Mormon. Cohn laughs and says, “Only in America.”
Cohn’s relationship with Joe is that of the mentor to the student. And yet Joe isn’t just a humble pupil—he has strong personal convictions of his own, and isn’t afraid to call out Roy for his “sins.” Cohn’s worldview seems to be centered on the U.S.—in other words, one’s “true” identity is a nation, not a religion.
Cohn offers Joe Pitt a “big” job in the Justice Department in Washington D.C. Joe is stunned—he tells Cohn he appreciates his generosity, but that he’ll have to ask his wife about it.
Joe seems like the embodiment of “family values” (a common phrase in 80s political rhetoric)—he’s religious, has a wife, and puts “family first.”