PHILADELPHIA -- Some people expect him to bark or bite. Others shy away.
Jonathan Hadary has never experienced anything like this before. But he takes it as a compliment. After all, the actor is playing Roy Cohn.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy's right-hand man during the Communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Cohn is the character Hadary describes as "the devil" in "Angels in America."
An imaginative and inspiring two-part, seven-hour epic by Tony Kushner, "Angels" interweaves the stories of two couples: one homosexual and the other Mormon (and ostensibly straight), with characters ranging from a host of angels to Cohn, the Red-baiting lawyer. The Pulitzer Prize- and two-time Tony Award-winner opens a one-week run at the Mechanic Theatre tomorrow.
"Some people will good-naturedly pass by the stage door and go, 'You're a real bastard,' and they're grinning, and I say, 'Thank you. Thank you,' " says Hadary, also grinning as he relaxes in his hotel room during the show's Philadelphia engagement. "I find the more I play it, the more I'm smiling. It's so nasty and confident. I know it myself -- the glee that comes from being right."
"You want to be Nice, or you want to be Effective? Make the law, or subject to it. Choose."
--Roy Cohn in "Angels in America"
Hadary, who attended junior high and high school in Bethesda, says Cohn and the McCarthy hearings weren't discussed much at home when he was growing up. "I don't remember the hearings, nor do I remember them being spoken about, even in hushed tones," he says.
Not that his family ignored them. Like most adult Americans at the time, they were quite aware of the hearings. His mother, Norma, used to iron while watching the broadcasts.
She says it doesn't bother her or her husband, Joseph, that their son is playing such a villainous character -- a rarity in a career whose highlights have included starring roles in such musical comedies as "Guys and Dolls" and the Tyne Daly revival of "Gypsy."
If anything, Norma Hadary has enjoyed seeing Jonathan as Roy. "It was fun," she says.
"He's a convincing bastard," her husband adds. The Hadarys are retired government workers who still live in Bethesda.
The actor, 47, used Nicholas Von Hoffman's biography, "Citizen Cohn," to research the role and found the phots particularly helpful, though he deliberately avoided documentary foot age.
"I didn't want to do an impersonation," he says, explaining that, as the playwright writes in a disclaimer in the script, Cohn "was all too real . . . but this Roy is a work of dramatic fiction."
"It's Tony Kushner. It's so well-written and so vivid and comes alive to such a degree that you think it's a documentary in a way, and it's not, and I didn't want to approach it that way. It's very much a personal take on what this guy might have been like," Hadary says.
But for a lot of audiences it comes disturbingly close to the original. Hadary knows this because not everyone avoids him after the show. "The people who stop me to tell me they met him or their sister dated him or they didn't ever meet him and they just remember those hearings, it seems as if Tony and I, in these people's minds, have hit the nail on the head," he says.
"Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobod knows. Who have zero clout. Does this sound like me?"
--Roy Cohn in "Angels in America"
"Angels in America" begins in 1985, when Roy Cohn learns he is dying of AIDS. A closeted and homophobic homosexual, he refuses to accept the diagnosis, claiming instead that he has liver cancer.
The AIDS quilt
"I'm fond of quoting what I'm told is on the square on the AIDS quilt for Roy Cohn. There is one," Hadary says. "All it says are his name and the dates and the words: Bully. Coward. Victim."
Indeed, playwright Kushner has said his mixed response to that square was one of the inspirations for the play.
As written by Kushner and portrayed by Hadary, Cohn does display a certain amount of charm. The character's complexity is typical of this monumental work, which revels in overturning preconceptions.
Hadary hadn't seen "Angels in America" before auditioning for the role. He admits he had doubts about whether it would live up to its lofty reputation. But by the first intermission, he was hooked. "I loved this play and the characters in a way I've never loved characters in a play ever before," he says.
Though he had some trepidation before accepting the role, Hadary says part of the appeal was that "if everything panned out I could be this son of a bitch eight times a week . . . and during the day I'm not like that."
How unlike Cohn is he? One indication is the hobby he's taken up to fill the long stretches between Cohn's appearances on stage. He knits. So far he's made a multi-colored muffler, which he proudly dons for a photograph, and he's almost finished a beige vest.
"Roy Cohn. He's like the pole star of human evil, he's like th worst human being who ever lived, he isn't human even..."
--Louis Ironson, one of the protagonists in "Angels in America"
Hadary's temperament is also miles away from egotistical, irascible Cohn.
"He's so level-headed, and he's so modest. I'm always surprised when I see Jonathan again. It looks like his fame has in no way climbed into his head," says his former teacher, Stephen Perialas, who, coincidentally, also taught this production's director, Michael Mayer. Now retired after 30 years at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Perialas says Hadary worked on so many shows in so many capacities, "I used to refer to him in my mind as 'Mr. Walter Johnson Theater.' "
Gift for theater
Hadary's parents first noticed his gift for the theatrical when he used to perform magic tricks at age 4 or 5 back in Evanston, Ill., where he spent his early years. His interest in the theater became more serious when he was 16 and, together with two friends, founded Bethesda's Wildwood Summer Theater, which is still in existence.
"It met here in the house," his mother says of the theater group, "and the first day they made money, the kids were downstairs, and they threw the money up at the ceiling."
Although his parents were encouraging, they were dismayed when he dropped out of Tufts University to go on the road with "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown," in which he played Schroeder.
Hadary made one more stab at college after that, but the lure of the stage was too strong. For the past five years -- ever since starring on Broadway as Mama Rose's love interest, Herbie, in the revival of "Gypsy" -- he's barely had time to catch his breath between jobs.
"I'm immortal . . . I have forced my way into history. I ain't never gonna die."
--Roy Cohn in "Angels in America"
Nowadays, despite living out of hotels, despite the difficulty of finding restaurants open after the show, despite the ever-changing repertory schedule of this massive two-part play, and despite split weeks (when "Angels" plays more than one city in a single week), mild-mannered Jonathan Hadary continues to transform himself eight times a week into Roy Cohn -- a man that many younger audience members learn about for the first time on stage.
"I think it's ironic that he will be more well-known in the future as a dramatic character in this play. It doesn't say much about our sense of history," he says.
Hadary has been with the show for more than a year, but his delight hasn't faded. "I don't know that I have found happiness in my life playing Roy Cohn, or anything like that, but it's sort of
true. It's sort of true," he admits.
"It crosses my mind, the notion that this play I don't think is going to go away, and maybe in 10 years or 15 years, if it's being done again, I can play it again, like a return visit. And I won't need makeup."
'Angels in America'
Where: Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, Hopkins Plaza
When: Part 1: "Millennium Approaches," 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 1:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; Part 2: "Perestroika," 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday
Tickets: $27.50-$42.50 for each part
Call: (410) 625-1400