Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Conflicted chutzpah

The legacy of Roy Cohn

MORE THAN JUST A HOMOPHOBIC CLOSET CASE: Roy Cohn, a man best known for betraying his own communities. Actor Allan Morgan has been itching to play Cohn for a decade. Credit: Sarah Race photo

Roy Cohn, the ruthless, vulgar and wildly ambitious attorney who rose to prominence as the right-hand man of US Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s, was the type of lawyer people love to hate.

He was a Jew who oversaw the prosecution (and ultimate execution) of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were charged with passing nuclear secrets to Russian agents. Cohn claims he pushed for the death penalty and seemed quite proud of it.

He was also a homosexual who stayed in the closet his whole life while actively campaigning against extending civil rights to gays.

In 1984, he claimed his AIDS diagnosis was liver disease, too ashamed to admit the truth.

Allan Morgan, who plays Cohn in the new, local production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America running until Aug 19, says that playing him is “as good as it gets for playing conflicted characters.”

The “theatrical and huge, larger than life” Cohn is a role Morgan has coveted since seeing the Seattle production of Angels in the mid-1990s. Now, after auditioning for and “fighting tooth and nail” to land the role in Hoarse Raven Theatre’s production of the epic, two-part, seven-hour long show, he’s finally getting to fulfill a career goal he’s had for about a decade.

After seeing both parts (Millenium Approaches and Perestroika) in one day, Morgan says he was “palpably depressed that I would never have the opportunity” to play Cohn. I’m not Jewish enough, he thought.

But after reading the role at a Theatre Cares fundraiser this past February, his excitement was rejuvenated. When he then found out Hoarse Raven was mounting a full production, he said to himself: “I have to go for it.”

Director (and co-artistic director of Hoarse Raven) Michael Fera auditioned Morgan and a couple of other actors but made the decision to go with Morgan early on.

“There was a passion that he brought to it,” Fera offers, and being passionate about the work is important for such a long and involved piece as Angels.

Fera is straight (his partner is co-artistic director of Hoarse Raven and actor Tanya Dixon-Warren) but his company has produced several queer-themed plays. In addition to Angels, Hoarse Raven has staged Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi and Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

“I’m not consciously thinking to do that [pick gay plays]. I’m drawn to these stories of people who are marginalized and are trying to find their way in society,” Fera explains. First and foremost, he and Dixon-Warren look for great stories to tell.

Angels in America–which Fera describes as “epic yet so personal”–concerns Cohn and a character named Prior who have AIDS in Reagan-era America, and their dealings with their loved ones and spectral spirits. It’s about secrets, betrayal, rejection, family and ultimately, survival.

It’s a subject matter dear to Morgan’s heart. “By the mid ’90s, I’d lost a lot of friends to this disease,” he says. At that performance in Seattle, he tried unsuccessfully to fight back the tears.

Kushner’s Cohn is, of course, a fictionalized version of the man, albeit a complex and enigmatic one. To figure Cohn out, Morgan had to look for clues.

“The clues in this one are like the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle,” he laughs. “To be honest, I’m really afraid of Roy Cohn, tapping into his essence.”

Fera calls Cohn “a piece of work.”

Still, despite his more vile character flaws, Cohn did have some redeeming qualities: he was fiercely loyal to his friends, he was a fighter who never gave up, and he had an irrepressible spirit.

“I have to like him,” Morgan admits, adding that he is damn fun to play. “Kushner respects Roy Cohn in some bizarre way. This guy had real balls, real chutzpah.”

Fera agrees that to portray Cohn as the evil, homophobic closet case is too simplistic. After all, even Adolf Hitler loved his dog Blondie. “He’s found a humanity in the character that is so dynamic and interesting,” he says of Morgan’s take on Cohn.

This is the first time a local theatrical troupe has staged Angels in America in Vancouver; the only other production was mounted by a touring company that came through town for a couple of weeks in the mid 1990s. Fera feels telling this story in Vancouver is long overdue. “It’s been a dream of mine for a couple of years to do it,” he adds.

Unlike Morgan, Fera has not seen a theatrical production or even the mini-series of Angels in America; he only knows the play from Kushner’s script and wants to keep it that way.

His vision for this production of Angels will feature simple sets, with set changes and a few costume changes happening before the audience. It won’t be a “bells and whistles” production, he says. He wants the material to speak for itself and be “actor-driven.”

It’s been a long time since AIDS first came on the scene. Has the passing of time changed the meaning of Angels in America? Well, some things haven’t changed, Fera says. “There’s still equality people are fighting for.”

For younger gays, Fera reckons the play will be a bit of a history lesson, a reminder of how things were at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, when the “gay cancer” was a new, scary and misunderstood disease.

For Morgan, the ideas and themes have shifted somewhat since he began delving into the play. He was recently struck by a scene where an old Jewish rabbi is burying a woman who left war-torn Europe to immigrate to a new life in America.

The rabbi says “these journeys aren’t made anymore” and implies we have it easy now, Morgan says. But Kushner disagrees. Gay men with AIDS, he says, are on a journey equal to what that woman went through–equally courageous and perilous.

Angels, to Morgan, is about survival, strength, friendship and love.

“Kushner is also redefining family and what family is,” Fera states. “At the end of part two, we have a single woman, three gay men, one black gay man and they are the new family. They have come together as a family.”

Fera maintains Angels has a happy ending. “It’s full of hope,” he says. “Kushner ultimately wants us to be kinder to each other. There are lots of laugh lines, it’s not [all] gloomy. If we do our job right, people will come out of the theatre being uplifted.”