Set in Western Massachusetts, a place that Thurber has written about many times before, Transfers brings Clarence Matthews and Cristofer Rodriguez, two young men in their twenties from low-income backgrounds from Danvers Community College in NYC, to a Worcester motel to prep with their sponsor David from Work for Democracy for interviews at elite Herrell University. Clarence is an articulate, well-read African American who identifies as gay. Cristofer is an Hispanic American who is ranked number two in New York for wrestling in his senior year and is applying as an athlete scholar.
The problem is that Clarence has low test scores, and Cristofer’s lingo is all street talk and much of it is politically incorrect. Clarence feels right at home when he sees the campus and its library; Cristofer is made uncomfortable by the patrician airs of the place. Both of them are carrying a great deal of baggage, some of which they shared when they were 12 years old. Will they sabotage themselves or will they impress in the interviews? The stakes are high as this is their way out of the old neighborhood and into an entirely new future.
As Cristofer, Juan Castano is riveting in his honesty and his assurance. You could hear a pin drop during several of his monologue confessions as to why he didn’t do as well as he might have. His performance is almost frightening in its intensity. As the bookish Clarence, Ato Blankson-Wood is his diametric opposite, well-spoken, sensitive to other people, politically correct, well-mannered and able to hold his own in an intellectual conversation. He is equally intense in a quieter, more refined manner. Although both young actors have impressive New York credits, they should be better known after this.
If the play has any fault, it is at times overwritten: Cristofer tends to repeat himself, which demonstrates his inarticulateness but goes on a bit too long. As David, the sponsor for the scholarship, Glenn Davis is asked to be nearly hysterical too much of the time. We get that he cares desperately about his applicants who come with no preparation and with many social drawbacks. However, the way he has been asked to play David, makes us wonder how he can do his job. Nevertheless, he is a compelling character coping with all of the chips stacked against his charges.
As the staff members who are the young men’s interviewers, Leon Addison Brown and Samantha Soule are more successful in better written roles. As Geoffrey Dean, a humanities professor from an upper middle-class upbringing, Brown is suave, assured, well-spoken and sensitive. Touched by Clarence, he reveals much about himself. He brings a quiet authority to the role of a professor-admissions counselor. Soule as Coach McNulty has a very different role. In her interview with Chris, she is ironic and satiric, seemingly playing mind games that are both a literal and psychological test. As a woman of lower-class background she knows where these young men are coming from but wants to see how they stand up to hard questioning. Her layered performance is fascinating to watch as it unfolds and becomes more revealing of her hidden self.
Donyale Werle has created a unit setting that cleverly morphs into five different locales with the change of bookcases and windows. The costumes by Jessica Ford immediately define the characters as soon as we meet them. As directed by Jackson Gay, Lucy Thurber’s Transfers is both provocative and exhilarating theater. It also showcases two young actors who are great finds. Ironically, this is one of three plays this spring on education and the second on the unequal admissions process for American colleges and universities.
Transfers (extended through May 20, 2018)
Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, in Greenwich Village, Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.mcctheater.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes