Cristofer, one of the two bright but poor Bronx-born students who are vying for a scholarship in Lucy Thurber’s play “Transfers,” lashes out at one point at the advisor who has been trying to prep him for his admissions interview at an elite New England university. The advisor, David, has been admonishing Cristofer for his rough language and his unpolished demeanor: “I’m not sure you really understand the institution you are walking into tomorrow.”
Cristofer bridles; it’s David who “can’t understand” him.“You sit there and think you can tell me shit…I’m the one who knows life.”
And there, in a nutshell, is both what’s promising about the premise of Thurber’s well-meaning play, and what’s disappointing about its execution. “Transfers” attempts to dramatize the inequities in the American system of higher education; it asks a raft of stimulating questions, most of them indirectly: What’s the best way to define merit? Is the educational system really committed to cultural and economic diversity, or is the fix in? Are sports over-emphasized? When should a student’s ability to overcome adversity weigh more than their academic achievement? Is higher education a commodity or a right? But too much of the dialogue that prompts these questions simply doesn’t ring true. If David doesn’t really understand Cristofer, neither does the playwright.
Cristofer Rodriguez (Juan Castano) and Clarence Matthews (Ato Blankson-Wood) are both students at a second-rate New York City community college who are invited up for admissions interviews through a program run by a do-good foundation called Work for Democracy. Their liaison is an officer at the foundation, David DeSantos (Glenn Davis), who meets them in a motel room near the campus in Western Massachusetts the day before their interviews.
As we soon learn, Cristofer and Clarence know each other. They grew up on the same block, witnessed the same violence; both made it their mission to escape; both were traumatized by their experiences.
We see David try to prep Cristofer and Clarence. Then the motel room transforms into a series of faculty offices (kudos to set designer Donyale Werle) and we witness the applicants’ interviews the next day – Clarence with Geoffrey Dean (Leon Addison Brown), a Caribbean-born Russian literature scholar; Cristofer with Rosie McNulty (Samantha Soule), the rugby coach. What follows is a debate among the three adults as to whom they should select for the scholarships (there are many candidates, not just Cristofer and Clarence), which includes some surprises.
“Transfers” is the third recent play to touch on similar themes in education. Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions” was largely a satire about affirmative action. John Patrick Shanley’s “Prodigal Son”starred Timothee Chalomee as a poor Bronx-born student in an elite New England prep school who is recklessly at war with his own sensitive nature. All three miss the mark in various ways, but at least Shanley was writing about himself – writing from the inside.
Lucy Thurber, who grew up in rural Massachusetts, is best-known for the five-part cycle The Hill Town Plays, which tell the story of a woman trying to escape the economically and psychologically impoverished world of the rural blue-collar town where she grew up. The playwright obviously comes honestly to a story about escape through education. But she is writing about the urban characters from the outside.
Thurber’s play uses a kind of shorthand way too common when depicting poor people of color from the city. “The Bronx” signifies impoverished and traumatized; little further proof or elaboration necessary.
We see Clarence at one point sobbing in recollection of neighborhood horror. But, of the two applicants, he generally comes off as the less dramatic and thus more realistic character, helped by Blankson-Wood’s persuasively low-key performance. Clarence, who came out as gay at the age of 14, escaped the violence of his neighborhood by moving to Brooklyn. He is well-read and intellectually curious; he has just finished an Edith Wharton novel because he had learned she had moved to Western Massachusetts, and he figured her writing would give him insight into the region. His interview with Geoffrey amounts to an enlightening discussion about literature. At one point Geoffrey explains how, after reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot “something opened up inside of me” – he realized “a wooden table and vicious heartbreak are both equally solid objects.” But then Geoffrey says:
“Have you experienced real heartbreak, Clarence?”
“Yes I guess.”
“I can see that. I can see that you have.”
There probably is a faculty member somewhere who is enough of a schmuck to be so intrusively personal with a nervous teenager at an admissions interview, but the tone deafness seems to belong more to the playwright than to the character.
This gets worse in the interview between Cristofer and Coach Rosie McNulty, who is sarcastic with Cristofer, and shoots hostile questions at him; she even tells Cristofer at one point “you’re kinda acting like a jerk.” But Cristofer, albeit skittish and unsophisticated, doesn’t come off like much of a jerk at all; Rosie does. This baffling dynamic feels like the playwright’s artificial set-up for what’s to come; she eventually has them open up to one another, and attempts to establish a parallel between Cristofer, a member of the urban poor, and the coach, who is from a poor rural background; she was herself a scholarship student, a “townie” among the preppies.
There must be a reason why the playwright depicts the three adults of the play as so informal and outright confessional in their dealings with the applicants. But the exchanges feel unlikely and the effect is jarring. This is especially true of Glenn Davis as David, who’s turned into a comic figure from the get-go, when we see him losing an argument with his bossy girlfriend on the telephone in the snow outside the hotel.
Juan Castano is a terrific actor; he was sensational as the lead in Oedipus El Rey. I think he is charismatic enough to become a star. But he’s not at his best as Cristofer in “Transfers.” Little of how the character behaves feels completely credible, including his unrestrained homeboy crudity and his physical hyperactivity, given what we’re told about him: He is a nationally ranked wrestling champion and a good student who scored 750 on his math SAT. Throughout his childhood, we’re told, he stayed focused and above the fray, and is banking on his wrestling to get him one of the scholarships. But, now 20 years old, he has to explain his having dropped out of sight for two years. His grandmother, who had raised him, fell ill. So he says: “I had to take some time off to take care of her and then she died and then I did some grieving and now I’m back.” This is one of the few believable lines that someone as smart and diligent as Cristofer would utter. The playwright clearly means us to see it as a pat account that’s covering for a probable breakdown. But we never actually learn any details. Everything is vague, yet delivered melodramatically: “There’s a powerful force in my neighborhood-a powerful force-a powerful force that washes so many of us down the drain like bugs,” Cristofer says near the end of the play. If Lucy Thurber didn’t have Cristofer keep on saying such things, “Transfers” would be more powerful.
MCC Theater at Lucille Lortel
Written by Lucy Thurber. Directed by Jackson Gay.
Set design by Donyale Werle, costume design by Jessica Ford, lighting design by Russell H. Champa, sound design by Broken Chord,
Cast: Ato Blankson-Wood as Clarence, Leon Addison Brown as Geoffrey, Juan Castano as Cristofer, Glenn Davis as David, Samantha Soule as Rosie
Update: Transfers now runs through May 20, 2018.