Transfers, the latest work from the sharp and prolific playwright Lucy Thurber, isn’t on its own an entirely successful play. But it forms a fascinating counterpoint to several other recent and noteworthy works.
Thurber’s touchstone is Western Massachusetts, where she grew up and where she set her best known effort, the Hill Town Plays five-play cycle. She also writes about class issues. Transfers focuses on a program at Herrell University, a fictional elite college in the Berkshires—I imagine Williams, but with more graduate programs and less Bill Finn—that provides transfer opportunities for underprivileged students from certain community colleges. It opened tonight in an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel, unflashily but effectively directed by Jackson Gay.
Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Cristofer (Juan Castano) are two such students. They both grew up in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx, though Clarence at some point moved to Brooklyn. They’re both currently students at the same community college, and they’re both brought in for interviews at Herrell thanks to a group called Work for Democracy, a nonprofit that is helping to “further the education of certain worthy individuals.” They’re very different kids, with very different manners, but they’ve worked hard to stay out of a trouble in a world where that’s not always easy. Cristofer did that by wrestling; Clarence, through books.
When the play opens, David (Glenn Davis), a program officer for the foundation, is put up for the night in a snowed-in motel room with Clarence and Cristofer, two of those potentially worthy individuals. (A philosophy conference had filled up the place, hence the dramatically convenient need for them to be crammed into one room.) David is coaching the boys for their interviews the next morning, determined to help them say the right things and grab the brass ring of elite education. (That motel room turns into a wood-panelled professor’s lair and several other spaces in a clever set by the always-inventive Donyale Werle.)
Most obviously, Transfers makes an admirable counterpoint to Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s steamrolling take on affirmative action and liberal guilt, opened last month at Lincoln Center Theater. For all of Admissions’ power, it was focused on diversity as seen through the eyes of well-off white people. Transfers instead takes us inside the world of two kids from a rough neighborhood who might have a shot at access to a different world—and raises questions about whether they must abandon some of who they are in order to make it.
These are provocative ideas, and there are echoes here of LCT’s other current production, My Fair Lady. It is impossible to watch David train Cristofer in how to speak to his interlocutors, or at least watch him try to do that, without seeing shades of Higgins and Eliza. The difference is that Eliza yearns to learn how to be a lady, to get her flower shop. Cristofer wants a chance at a better life, but he also doesn’t want to give up who he is.
If the adults in these kids lives have let them down, it’s certainly the adult characters in the play who don’t pull their weight. Clarence and Cristofer have compelling lives—and in Blankson-Wood and Brown’s hands become needy, prideful, fully drawn characters. They have a lovely, tender scene together, emphasizing what they’ve had to do to get as far as they have. But Thurber has rendered the grown-ups here much more simplistically.
David is a do-gooder, a Harrell alum, who wants to help these kids but also seems near-maniacally worked up about the process. There are suggestions of tensions with his girlfriend, but his character’s anxiety is overpowering and off-putting. Davis does his role no favors with an unmodulated performance that’s consistently grating. Geoffrey (Leon Addision Brown) is the academic who interviews Clarence; he’s charming but a caricature of a bookish fop. Coach McNulty (Samantha Soule) is a nearly equally archetypal character, but Soule’s performance in her one on one with Cristofer, the casually sexist aspiring athlete, is a high point of the play.
If the grown-ups aren’t quite credible, their climatic debate on the students’ admissions chances in the penultimate scene is even less so. Its results feel structurally necessary but largely unearned, and that keeps Transfers from alchemizing into a play good enough to be worthy of its young subjects. Which in its own way proves a point: This is neither the first time nor the last that Clarence and Cristofer will be let down by others.
Transfers opened April 23, 2018, at the Lucille Lortel Theatre and runs through May 13. Tickets and information: mcctheater.org