At Roy Cohn’s house, Joe tells Cohn that he can’t go to Washington D.C.—he has to find his missing wife. His mother is waiting for him at the airport right now, he confesses, but he’s been ill lately; in fact, he spent two days in the hospital with an ulcer.
Joe’s ulcer contrasts with Prior’s AIDS in a grotesque or even darkly comic way—Joe’s pain pales in comparison with Prior’s.
Cohn, who seems very drunk, tells Joe that he’s a “dumb Utah hick” for turning down the Washington offer. Cohn tells Joe, “You broke my heart,” to which Joe replies, “I love you.” Joe claims that he wants to be a Washington “player,” but he can’t force himself to be unethical. Joe tells Cohn that he admires Cohn for his decency and strong sense of right and wrong. Joe concludes that he’s not willing to sacrifice his own moral values to help Cohn.
Cohn and Joe’s relationship is quickly deteriorating, which makes it all the more poignant when Joe tells Cohn that he loves him. Joe is so pious in his religious and moral convictions, as we see here, that he’s unable to put his love for Cohn before his love for the law.
Cohn calls Joe a sissy. He keeps talking, very drunk and interrupting Joe. Cohn claims that his greatest accomplishment as a lawyer—even greater than making presidents or making a lot of money—was ensuring the execution of Ethel Rosenberg. If it wasn’t for his legal intervention, Cohn claims, Ethel Rosenberg would still be alive. During Rosenberg’s trial, Cohn claims that he violated the rules of the law by calling Rosenberg’s judge. In this way, Cohn ensured that Rosenberg, a mother of two children, wasn’t sentenced to life in prison, but rather executed for treason.
We already knew Cohn was a liar and thief, but here it’s suggested that he’s essentially a murderer too. Ethel Rosenberg’s execution is often interpreted as a symbol of the anti-Communist hysteria in the U.S. during the 1950s. Rosenberg was found guilty of espionage, but it was later found that witnesses, including Ethel’s own brother, had lied about her, and it’s another matter entirely to say that she deserved to be killed for her actions. In essence, Cohn is showing Joe the “dirty roots” of Reagan’s conservatism in the 1980s—an ideology that was built on fear and an opposition to Communism.
Joe is shaken by Cohn’s claims, and he even suggests that Cohn could be guilty of murder. Joe confesses that he feels sorry for Cohn, since Cohn is dying of cancer. Cohn angrily shouts that this isn’t true—he flatly denies that he’s dying of cancer at all. Cohn pushes Joe and calls him “Joey boy.” Joe is so furious that he pushes Cohn to the floor. Cohn mocks Joe, urging Joe to hit him, but Joe runs out of the house instead.
Cohn comes close to expressing his own sexuality to Joe—although Cohn would never admit that he’s gay, he’s bullying Joe for being a “sissy” in a way that suggests Cohn’s hatred for his own sexual identity. Notably, Cohn wants Joe to hit him—because part of Cohn seemingly knows that he’s corrupt, and he can’t stand for other people to be morally superior to him.
Cohn lies on the ground. Suddenly, a woman appears before Cohn—Cohn greets this woman as Ethel Rosenberg. (Joe can’t see her). Ethel says that Cohn looks sickly. She makes fun of Cohn in Yiddish, and Cohn slowly climbs to his feet. He tells Ethel that she can’t scare him—he’s much scarier than she is. “Better dead than Red,” he shouts. Calmly, Ethel tells Cohn that she’ll see him soon, and she adds that Julius sends his regards. Cohn falls to the floor again, consumed with pain. Ethel picks up the phone and calls 9-1-1, giggling about the “nifty” modern telephone. She then hangs up the phone and looks down at Cohn, who’s still crawling on the floor. Cohn claims that he’ll never die—he’s worked his way into history. Ethel nods and says, “Millennium approaches.”
Confronted by a symbol of his dirty, murderous past, Cohn can only respond with the vacuous slogans of 50s McCarthyism, such as “better dead than Red.” (Ethel also mentions Julius, her husband, also executed for treason.) We have to face the strong possibility that Cohn’s vision of Ethel Rosenberg is just a hallucination (as any of the “fantasy” elements of the play could be). This would suggest that Cohn has been repressing his guilt for murdering Ethel for thirty years, and now—at the end of his life—he can’t repress it any longer. Cohn’s emphasis on power and prestige is also clear in this scene. He’s so obsessed with prestige that he’s not particularly intimidated about the prospect of dying, since he knows people will continue to celebrate his name.