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There’s a lot to unpack in this compelling and engaging new play at MCC Theatre. Lucy Thurber (The Insurgents) has written a strongly structured and aimed examination of the sharing gift of higher education and the possibility that it can be the cure against all ills. It first felt like we were in store for a study on racism within the admission department of an elite ivy league college, like the deeper and more satisfying Admissions at the Lincoln Center Theater, but with Transfers, the concept is more complex, less focused, and blurry in its purpose. It floats around a number of compelling arguments without ever managing to settle itself down, much like one of the better players (Castano) in this production. It succeeds marginally but without accomplishing the final task fully or thoroughly.
Two young smart man, one black and gay, the other hispanic and less contained, are up for an opportunity for admission with a full scholarship into a very well-heeled college up in Western Mass. The two share a lot more in common than the Bronx neighborhood they grew up in, much to the surprise to their helper and admission’s coach, David, portrayed erratically and passionately by Glenn Davis (Vineyard’s Wig Out!). He has been given the task to greet them at a motel and prepare them for their individual interviews the next day on campus. Both take the bus up from New York separately for the interviews, but to make matters clear within that room, they aren’t actually competing against each other, as Clarence, stoically played by Ato Blankson-Wood (Public’s As You Like It), is up for the scholastic category, and Cristofer, played with a manic energy by the always interesting and exciting Juan Castano (Public’s Oedipus El Rey), is a wrestler and up for a sports scholarship. His portrayal of this streetwise survivor is by far the best thing in this play, even with his overly manic aggression and behavior. He’s designed in a manner to push one away by his words, demeanor, and rough slang, but the desperation and fear underneath it all is heart-breaking and completely engaging. To everyone’s surprise Clarence and Cristofer know each other from their early teenage years, before Clarence left the neighborhood for safer pastures with an Aunt so he could be far from their mutual friend, Rodrigo and the trouble that Clarence found himself in. Cristofer is a fighter and survived by keeping his head down and his walk purposefully aimed at the Gym. He barely looked up, although if he had, he might have been lost like Clarence, or possibly helped save them both.
David, with a pure sense of purpose and empathetic desire residing somewhere beneath his outwardly stressed out persona, tries to engage them both in order to pull out a story that would help them through the process. He truly wants them to succeed and get accepted into this generous program and prestigious school, but might be in over his head, or misguided in his approach. You can tell, even through his strangely unneeded subplot and overzealous manner, that he believes that a stronger more vigorous higher education in a school like this could save these two young men from the world they grew up in. It feels a bit inauthentically structured during the first scene as stories that are told don’t feel like they are coming from an honestly constructed place. Most feel forced and required for this piece to strive forward in its argument about class structure and higher education. Reactions seem over blown, and revelations forced.
But the stage is well set, even prophesied, for the next day’s interviews, and with one of many inventive stage reconfigurations of Donyale Werle’s (Broadway’s In Transit, Allegiance) set, with strong lighting by Russell H. Champa (PH’s The Light Years), costumes by Jessica Ford (Atlantic’s These Paper Bullets), and sound design by Broken Chord (MCC’s Relevance), we find ourselves there at the college witnessing one interview right after the other. Clarence’s is exactly as predicted, with an eloquent and slightly cartoonish Geoffrey Dean, stiffly and pompously portrayed by Leon Addison Brown (Broadway’s Misery) having the exact kind of intellectual discussion that one would want in this situation. Cristofer’s interview, on the other hand, is as raw and volatile as Castano’s magnificent character creation demands, aggressively interacting with the perfect counterpoint to Cristofer, Coach Rosie McNulty, fantastically portrayed by Samantha Soule (Public’s Barbecue). The back and forth of these two is worthy of a sport’s metaphor, as if they are playing some aggressively vulnerable tennis match with tears as the defining end point. Whether you see this as a win or a loss, it’s highly engaging although somewhat difficult to fully accept. All four, even the college interviewers, share their stories, but the outcome seems obvious and clearly designed from the beginning. They both though, seem to find common ground, a place where we think the prospective student and the interviewer might each understand the other. So the final scene just seems written in the cards, with very little left to surprise us.
As directed by Jackson Gay (Alley Theater’s Lover Beloved), the play hums along solidly and professionally, smoothly taking us to the moment that the main ideas will be hashed out by the three people in power. Who will be gifted of a higher education, and why one and not the other? It never feels fully real, overstuffed with ideology even with all the heightened emotions flinging themselves this way and that. The only one that feels authentic is the Coach who sums up the moment the best with her last line. And what she says, in some way, negates the argument. Will either succeed in life? That is the story that is left unanswered, even with the sentimental scene at the end. It’s a joy to witness, fully beautiful but not all that shocking nor obvious. It feels staged and superficial but the two strings leads bring it down to earth. Once again Transfers never seems to actually transfer us from theoretical discussion and grand ideals to real life. But they all sure do have the best intentions.