Roy Cohn sits in his hospital bed, Joe Pitt standing over him. Cohn claims that he represents “the heart of modern conservatism.” He rambles about “sinful people,” vanity, and the impossibility of being what we want to become. He concludes that he’s lost touch with the real world.
Cohn has lost none of his old arrogance (imagine describing yourself as “the heart” of anything). And yet there’s also a sadness and loneliness in his monologue—he acknowledges that his time has come and gone.
Joe confesses that he was afraid that Cohn would be angry with him for turning down Cohn’s plan to call off the disbarment hearing. Cohn shakes his head and talks about the “treacherous bitch” who’s watching Cohn’s hearing right now. Joe asks, “Who?” but Cohn doesn’t reply.
Cohn’s relationship with Ethel is fascinating—Ethel is like the angel of death, calmly waiting to take Cohn away to the afterlife. And yet Ethel is also the projection of Cohn’s own guilty conscience—he knows he’s a hypocrite.
Cohn asks Joe if Joe’s father ever gave him a blessing, and Joe says no. Cohn remembers a passage in the Bible in which Jacob, a “ruthless motherfucker,” blesses his father, Isaac. He asks Joe to kneel before him and bless him, as Jacob blessed Isaac. Joe does so, remembering that he read the same Bible stories when he was a child.
This is yet another reminder that religious identity is another important part of one’s self, as the Jewish Cohn and the Mormon Joe bond over their similar upbringings.
On the other half of the stage, Louis meets up with Prior in a park. Prior, now dressed all in black and walking with a cane, tells Louis, “Fuck you.” Louis tries to tell Prior that he wants to make up with Prior. He explains that he’s been seeing another man, a lawyer. Prior shakes his head with fury.
Prior looks like the grim reaper with his black outfit and cane (at least in some productions). To his credit, Louis doesn’t lie to Prior: he owes Prior the truth, even if the truth is hard to hear.
Joe tells Cohn the truth: he’s abandoned his wife to live with another man. Suddenly, Cohn climbs out of bed and tries to walk out of the room. As he walks, the IV pulls out of Cohn’s arm, dripping blood onto the floor. Joe tries to help Cohn, and Cohn seizes Joe, dripping blood all over his shirt. Cohn orders Joe to return to his wife and avoid thinking about men.
Here, Joe essentially admits that he’s a homosexual to Cohn (whether he understands that Cohn is also gay is unclear but unlikely). It takes great strength for Joe to admit this to Cohn, whom Joe thinks of as a strong, righteous father figure. There’s also some frightening dramatic irony here, as we know how dangerous Cohn’s infected blood is, but Joe has no idea.
Belize rushes into the room and pulls Cohn off Joe. He instructs Joe to throw away his bloody shirt, and not touch the blood. Cohn shouts, “Get the fuck out of here,” to Joe, and Joe leaves, weeping.
The scene is vaguely sexual, and has the qualities of an ironic sacrament or a bloody baptism. Joe is literally covered with his mentor’s blood, and yet this blood is deadly, and his mentor seemingly disavows him.
Back in the park, Prior is still furious with Louis for seeing another man. Louis tries to explain: he feels a strong sense of “companionship” with this man. This makes Prior even more furious. He gets up to leave, shouting that Louis shouldn’t try to see him again until he has “real bruises.”
As Prior sees it, human contact can only be truly intimate when both people have suffered equally, or have a shared experience they can truly understand. This echoes Louis’s earlier encounter with the Stranger in the park, in which he seemed to be trying to suffer like Prior.
Back in the hospital, Cohn asks Belize for his real name. Belize explains that his real name is Norman Ariago. As Belize cares for him, Cohn tells Belize that lawyers are America’s “high priests.” The law, Cohn continues, was the only club he ever wanted to join. Now, he’s going to die—just before he’s disbarred.
This is one of Cohn’s most sympathetic moments—it reminds us that Cohn, for all his power, is also a slave to his own conservative ideology. Cohn has always been obsessed with the idea of belonging to a club—and now he’s about to be expelled from that club.
As Cohn speaks, Ethel Rosenberg materializes in the hospital room, smiling faintly. Belize cannot see her.
Cohn’s time on Earth is nearly at an end.