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(Act One is subtitled "Bad News")
The play opens with Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz alone onstage with a small wooden coffin. He is preaching the funeral of Sarah Ironson, the grandmother of a large, assimilated Jewish family. Rabbi Chemelwitz admits he did not know Sarah, whose later years in the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews were sad and quiet, but that he knows her type: the strong, uncomplaining peasant women of Eastern Europe who immigrated to America to build authentic homes for their children. Her kind soon will no longer exist, he says.
Meanwhile, Joe Pitt is waiting in Roy Cohn's office while Roy nimbly manipulates several blinking phone lines. Roy switches between arguing with a client whose court date he missed, arranging theater tickets for the wife of a visiting judge, and cursing out an underling. Joe watches him uncomfortably. As Roy uses swear words, Joe asks him not to take the Lord's name in vain, explaining that he is a Mormon. Roy praises Joe's work as a judicial clerk—he writes decisions for his boss to sign—and then offers him a powerful job in the Justice Department. Joe, pleased but surprised, says he needs to talk to his wife.
Joe's wife Harper is sitting alone in their apartment talking to herself and worrying—she imagines the ozone layer disappearing. Mr. Lies, a travel agent who Harper imagines, suddenly appears. Harper asks for a guided tour of Antarctica to see the hole in the ozone layer. She confesses her terrible fears about the world and the state of her marriage. Joe returns home and Mr. Lies vanishes; he asks her if she would like to move to Washington.
The scene cuts to Louis Ironson, Sarah's grandson, and his lover Prior Walter. They are sitting on a bench outside the funeral home and Louis is about to leave for the cemetery. He remembers his grandmother and apologizes to Prior for not introducing him, saying that family events make him feel closeted. Louis asks why Prior is in a bad mood, assuming it is because their cat, Little Sheba, is missing. Instead, Prior rolls up his sleeve and reveals a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion, an infectious disease that accompanies AIDS. Prior is glib but Louis panics, grabbing him; Prior admits he did not tell him earlier because he is afraid Louis will leave him. Louis says he needs to go to the cemetery but promises he will come back afterwards.
Joe asks Harper if she is willing to move to Washington, but she asks him to turn the job down, offering a series of lame, unconvincing excuses and ridiculous fears. Joe asks her how many Valium pills she has taken today; after first denying it, she admits she has had three. At first he tries to calm her, promising that things are changing for good in the world, but then gets angry at her obstinacy and accuses her of having emotional problems. When they make up, Harper suggests they try oral sex, but Joe is shocked and unnerved. Meanwhile, across the stage, Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Bible says about someone who abandons a loved one in a time of need, confessing that he is afraid of disease and death. The rabbi has no satisfying answer for him.