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Theatre in Review: Transfers (MCC Theater)

Glenn Davis, Juan Castano, Ato-Blankson-Wood. Photo: Joan Marcus

The playwright Lucy Thurber has often scrutinized the town-and-gown class system of Western Massachusetts' college towns; in Transfers, she gives this material a provocative new spin, adding race to the mix. This time, her protagonists are Clarence and Cristofer, young men from the Bronx, who are trying to get into a top New England school via a scholarship program designed to recruit disadvantaged students who are currently attending community colleges. The night before their interviews, they are holed up in a motel with David, who helps administer the program. Everyone is on edge, for a variety of reasons.

Clarence, who is black, is a wary, watchful presence; thanks to a miscommunication, he has arrived thinking the interview is a formality, and is horrified to find that he is in competition with four other applicants. Cristofer, who is Hispanic and hopes to get in on his record as a wrestler, is a much rougher character -- he's loud, hostile, and perpetually on the edge of a profane outburst. In the first of several curve balls thrown by Thurber, it turns out that Clarence and Cristofer are acquainted, having grown up in the same neighborhood. In one of his many faux pas, Cristofer, by way of warning, informs David that Clarence is gay. David, horrified, delivers a lesson in political correctness that leaves Cristofer feeling even more like a fish out of water.

On the face of it, Clarence, with his far-more-polished self-presentation, should be the shoo-in of the pair, but Thurber skillfully keeps twisting the plot, leaving them -- and us -- in a state of nervous uncertainty. In a frank exchange, we see how much the boys know about each other, including Cristofer's downward spiral following the death of the grandmother who raised him, and Clarence's dependence on (and secret love for) a neighborhood gang leader who he witnessed committing a brutal murder. Their delicate entente is put under stress when David coaches them, urging them to exploit the gritty details of their lives to win over the interviewers. As Clarence, speaking for Cristofer, says, "She wasn't a story to him. His grandmother. She isn't a story...Some things aren't for sale."

Things get even dicier during the interviews. Clarence meets with Geoffrey, a literature professor; what follows is an exercise in calculated charm, with Clarence perhaps emboldened by the fact that Geoffrey, too, is black. Cristofer meets with Rosie, the no-nonsense rugby coach, and their interview turns into a confrontation; Rosie, more amused than irritated by his bad behavior, calls him out and rudely probes his psyche, trying to determine exactly what he has in terms of guts. Each of these scenes -- one an exercise in mutual seduction, the other an exchange of blunt truths -- leaves the question of the boys' fates hanging, and by now, having glimpsed their ambitions and their vulnerabilities, we very much want them both to succeed.

We get the results in a scene that goes awry just enough to damage the play a bit. David, Geoffrey, and Rosie sit down to decide which four of the five applicants will be accepted. Things don't go the way David had hoped, leading to a confrontation that is rather too heavily freighted with speechmaking to be satisfying. We don't need to be told how unfair the situation is and how desperately each young man needs this scholarship; every line, every gesture has made this uncomfortably clear. The scene is necessary to the plot, but, in many ways, it feels redundant. Thurber recovers with a final meeting, months later, between Clarence and Cristofer that ends on an authentically tender note, but by now it seems obvious that if Transfers is engrossing on a scene-by-scene basis, it doesn't completely add up to a satisfying drama.

Still, under Jackson Gay's direction, the entire cast proves adept at charting the play's tricky emotional geography; Ato Blankson-Wood's Clarence isn't easily pinned down, whether he is unapologetically describing his favorite sexual activity to an unnerved Cristofer, recalling his neighborhood protector with a mixture of wistfulness and fear, or warily evading some of Geoffrey's probing personal questions. Juan Castano's Cristofer sits atop a volcano of anger, which he tries to dissipate through wisecracks and rude behavior, but there's a much more thoughtful, deeply wounded person inside. Glenn Davis' David is a telling portrait of someone whose goodwill has been stretched to the breaking point, thanks to an abundance of professional and personal problems. Leon Addison Brown's Geoffrey masks his coolly assessing nature behind a mask of affability. Slouched in a chair and exuding an impatient, time-is-money air, Samantha Soule's Rosie considers the world with a sideways glance, a barely suppressed smile, and a murmured wisecrack.

Gay's design team solves any number of logistical problems. Donyale Werle has devised a single set that, with brief interludes for re-dressing, represents the motel, three different offices, and a coffee shop. Russell H. Champa's lighting accurately renders winter night and day looks. Jessica Ford's costumes speak volumes about the characters, especially the very different styles favored by Clarence and Cristofer. The sound design, by Broken Chord, efficiently delivers the incidental music, featuring drums and violins along with such effects as winter wind and street traffic.

Even in its awkward passages, Transfers mordantly explores some of the class lines in our society, making it all too clear just how hard it can be to get ahead. In an ironic finale, we learn that it isn't at all clear who the winners and losers are. The only thing that we can be sure of is that young men like Clarence and Cristofer have the odds stacked against them. -- David Barbour

(24 April 2018)

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