Joe Pitt and Roy Cohn sit in a bar. Joe, totally sober, explains that Harper, his wife, is mentally disturbed, and takes too many pills. Cohn, drunk, listens closely. God’s rules, Joe claims, are very strict—Harper has always had a hard time living up to them.
Joe seems so close to outing himself before Roy—a man he regards as a close friend and confidant. Little does Joe know that Roy is also (seemingly) a closeted gay man.
Abruptly, Joe apologizes to Cohn for opening up about his personal life. Cohn puts his hand on Joe’s back and says it’s all right. Joe continues telling Cohn about his desire to be one of the “elect”—the good, moral people of the world who are chosen to go to Heaven. Although he loves Harper, Joe is most attracted to the part of Harper that’s farthest from the “light.” Cohn tells Joe that he’s “the best divorce lawyer in the business.” Cohn wants Joe to divorce his wife and go to Washington.
Cohn’s behavior toward Joe now seems almost sexual (touching his back, etc.). Indeed, Cohn seems to pushing Joe to give into the very feelings that Cohn’s ideology condemns—he wants Joe to give up on his marriage to Harper. The notion of being “far from the light” is interesting, and suggests that Harper too has struggled with the rules of Mormonism.
Outside the bar in a park, Louis meets a stranger. Louis asks the Stranger to have sex with him, saying that he’s been a “bad boy.” Louis tells the Stranger that they can’t go to Louis’s place to have sex. The Stranger tells Louis that they can’t go to his place—he lives with his parents.
In Kushner’s stage directions, the same actor plays Prior and the Stranger, reinforcing the point that Louis is looking for a replacement for Prior—and also showing just how futile his attempt is.
In the bar, Cohn tells Joe about his long career as a lawyer, working for Joseph McCarthy. He describes his relationship with McCarthy as being “close” and “tender.” Joe replies that his own father was “difficult and cold.”
Cohn’s description of McCarthy seems very sexual—something especially ironic considering just how “conservative” and “traditional” both McCarthy and Cohn were supposed to be.
Outside in the park, the Stranger has rough sex with Louis. As the Stranger penetrates Louis, he tells Louis that he’s broken his condom. Louis shouts, “Keep going, infect me.” This makes the Stranger uncomfortable. He tells Louis that he’s going to go.
Louis seems to want to punish himself for abandoning Prior. Indeed, in this moment of despair and passion he seems to almost want to contract the AIDS virus, perhaps so that he can be with Prior again without being guilty and afraid.
Cohn and Joe leave the bar. As they walk outside, Cohn gives Joe some startling news: he’s dying of cancer. Cohn explains that he’s unafraid of death. He tells Joe not to let anything stand in his way.
Instead of revealing themselves to each other, Joe and Cohn maintain their respective lies, with Cohn telling Joe about his “liver cancer.” Cohn seems so proud and aggressive in his day-to-day life that it’s almost believable that he has no fear of death.