Back in their apartment, Harper is telling Joe Pitt that she’s not sure if she wants to go to Washington D.C. Joe is upset, since he’s eager to go, and he claims that it’s “time to make some changes.” He’s a highly overqualified legal clerk, who makes less money than any of his friends.
We return to the scene in Joe’s apartment—Kushner does lots of jumping back and forth. Joe emphasizes the importance of change—something that seems to contradict his professed ideals of conservatism.
Harper claims that she has too much to do in New York City—she has to paint the bedroom (something she’s been working on for over a year). She claims that she’s afraid to go in the bedroom alone, and she can only walk inside when Joe is with her. She compares their apartment with the apartment from the movie Rosemary’s Baby. Abruptly, Joe asks Harper how many valium pills she took. Harper at first claims she took none, but then admits to taking three.
Ironically, Harper—who just a few minutes ago was contemplating taking “a vacation”—is now reluctant to leave New York. She makes a series of silly excuses for staying in the city. From our perspective, it’s clear that Harper doesn’t have any good reason to stay in New York other than her own fear of the unknown, or her unhappiness with Joe.
The scene cuts to the aftermath of the funeral. As he buries his grandmother, Louis approaches Rabbi Chemelwitz. He admits to having ignored his grandma in her final years, and adds that he doesn’t even speak Yiddish—he’s not much of a Jew. Louis asks the Rabbi for some advice—he wants to know about abandoning “a sick person” he loves in a time of need. The Rabbi pauses for a moment, and then he eventually says that the Holy Script has nothing to offer Louis on this subject. He teases Louis that if he wants to confess, he should become a Catholic.
The Rabbi’s behavior in this scene contrasts markedly with the authority he projected in the first scene of the play. Now, he’s forced to admit that the problems of modernity exceed (or at least are different from) anything the “old world” had to deal with. Religion—indeed, all traditional knowledge—isn’t prepared to deal with the AIDS crisis, an enormous, traumatic era of American history.
Back in the apartment, Joe Pitt tells Harper that things are changing in the U.S.—President Ronald Reagan has inspired people to embrace truth and optimism. Joe thinks that he can be part of that change. Harper is more cynical, and she points out that the ozone layer is getting wider and wider. Joe angrily tells Harper that she has “emotional problems,” and frets about imaginary things. Harper shoots back that Joe has too many “secrets and lies.”
The contrast between Louis’s pessimism and Joe’s optimism is so blatant that it’s hard not to notice it. Joe, a conservative man, idolizes Ronald Reagan, who is the very symbol of the conservative Renaissance in America (see Background Info). The mention of “secrets and lies,” especially just after Louis talks about being “closeted,” makes us wonder if Joe is hiding his own sexuality.
Joe tries to apologize to Harper. Harper tells him that she’s been researching how to give “a good blowjob.” Joe finds this unnerving. Harper shrugs and resumes talking about the ozone layer.
Harper refuses to buy Joe’s idealistic conservatism, and becomes obsessed with how serious the world’s problems really are. This scene also suggests that there are problems with intimacy in the couple’s marriage.