With well over a dozen plays such as Ashville and Scarcity to her credit, Lucy Thurber has a great gift for writing sharp, absorbing dramas about people of disadvantaged origins who are struggling to forge better lives. The determination that compels them to climb out of their poor circumstances is powerful. The language that these individuals talk is eloquent in its everyday simplicity. The bridges that her younger characters need to cross to reach a hopefully brighter future usually involves education.
All of these traits typical of so much of Thurber’s writing are there to see in Transfers, her latest drama, which regards two young men from the same rough neighborhood in the South Bronx. Cristofer (Juan Castano) and Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood) have not seen each other since they were 14. Some six years later, both are candidates for scholarships that will transfer them out of a shabby community college to an elite university in New England.
Cristofer, who is Latino, is a wrestling champion. Clarence, who is black, is a gifted writer. They are not competing against each other for the few open slots at the university, but against low-income students from other schools. The story begins in a snowbound motel room where David (Glenn Davis), a liaison officer in the scholarship program, ineptly tries to prepare these two guys for crucial interviews they will undergo the next day.
Different as they may be from each other, both youths are anxious and apprehensive and eventually they suffer contrasting sorts of meltdowns that reveal much about their characters. They also share ugly secrets from the old neighborhood.
Clarence’s interview with a glib literature don (Leon Addison Brown) proves to be agreeable. Cristofer’s session with a female faculty member (Samantha Soule) starts badly and gets rocky. A subsequent scene shows the two professors meeting with David to determine who is going to win those scholarships. Their collegial discussion about individual potential, academic standards and test scores turns nasty, with the futures of Cristofer and Clarence hanging in the balance. The 100-minute play ends back in the Bronx.
Like a cold-starting car, Transfers sputters somewhat during the opening expository passages, but it soon runs smoothly as the characterizations of these students come into brighter focus. For all of his imagination and fluency, Clarence is shadowed by his past and so insecure that he feels invisible to others. Edgy, at times inarticulate, Cristofer is aggressive in manner yet sensitive in his perceptions. What helps to fuel the drama is Blankson-Wood’s deeply-felt portrayal of Clarence and an especially blazing performance from Castano as Cristofer. His painfully funny cat-and-mouse conference with Soule’s disdainful adjudicator unexpectedly becomes heartfelt. The intensity of the interplay between Castano and a grudgingly empathetic Soule transforms their scene into the play’s emotional highlight.
Not incidentally, let’s note that Castano has enjoyed a fine Off Broadway season: In Bruce Norris’ time-shifting A Parallelogram at Second Stage, Castano played a sweet-natured gardener caught up in Celia Keenan-Bolger’s weird future. At the Public Theater, in Luis Alfaro’s Oedipus El Rey, which reimagined its tragic hero as a gang leader in modern-day Los Angeles, Castano was touching as Oedipus. Now this.
Too bad that some of the other acting in Transfers is spotty, but it’s not so terrible as to impede MCC Theater’s tidy production, which has been neatly staged by director Jackson Gay. A flexible setting designed by Donyale Werle quickly delivers five different locations, which helps to speed matters along at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
People who have witnessed Admissions, Joshua Harmon’s argumentative comedy regarding privilege and higher education, are likely to be amused by the debates that later arise between the faculty members in Transfers as they squabble over which underprivileged students are best suited for their ivied halls. If Thurber’s intention here is to satirize the blindness of inflexible educators, she certainly succeeds at it: The aftermath of their conflict makes the conclusion of her play even more poignant.