Cristofer Rodriguez is the last to arrive at the motel, tromping through the snow from the bus station. The trip up from the Bronx was last-minute, and those few hours on the road have delivered him to a foreign landscape: small-town Western Massachusetts, where in the morning he has a college interview. If he gets in, transferring from a community college, he’ll have a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious, ivy-covered school. But right now it’s late evening, and there’s a take-out order to consider.
“How do you feel about Italian?” asks David DeSantos, a professional do-gooder from the foundation that funds the scholarships. “I could order us some pasta, salad, maybe a couple of grinders?”
“Grinder?” Cristofer says, baffled. It’s local lingo for submarine sandwich, he’s told, but still he takes a moment to adjust. “A grinder?” he repeats, incredulous, rolling the word around in a mouth accustomed to New Yorkese. “Grinder?”
Every culture has its codes and customs, and in Lucy Thurber’s Transfers, Cristofer (Juan Castano) will have to learn some new ones if his life takes the turn he’s hoping for. So will his roommate for the night, Clarence Matthews (Ato Blankson-Wood) — a fellow scholarship candidate Cristofer remembers from when they were small, before Clarence left their neighborhood for Brooklyn and tried never to come back.
Of all the obstacles to understanding that divide the people in this bruised and bruising comedy— race and gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation — the most insidious may be class. It’s a familiar subject for Thurber (The Hill Town Plays), who grew up in Western Massachusetts in a single-parent family with unreliable finances. She knows what it is to make the leap into a safer, more even-keeled existence, and how arduous and unlikely that can be.
Directed by Jackson Gay for MCC Theater, Transfers is a college-admissions play, and I’d love to see it in repertory with Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline and Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, both of which damningly examine the role of race and privilege in gaining access to the kind of education that can set a person up for life. So does Transfers. At its heart, though, this is a play about alternate worlds — about trying to scrabble out of a precarious past and into a more promising future, a million psychic miles from the place that’s always been home.
The genial Clarence would seem to have an advantage in his bookishness. He’s done some homework, reading Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, which is set around there. “I’ve been acquainting myself with the area,” he tells David. “I wanted to get, you know? A feel for it — the history and stuff. Puritans. Catholics and the cold.”
Black, gay, and intellectually voracious, Clarence is a subdued contrast with Cristofer, a blustering Latino jock who’s up for a wrestling scholarship. Wrong-footed from the moment he walks in the door, Cristofer has a manic energy, a swaggering façade, and something of a rage problem. He’s also a virulent homophobe with a misogynistic streak, but Thurber has written him to be lovable nonetheless, and Castano’s performance makes him intensely so. It helps that Clarence, the target of Cristofer’s homophobia, is so cheerfully self-accepting, and that the lone woman Cristofer encounters at the college deflates him handily.
Thurber has drawn these young men beautifully, but she cheats at writing David (Glenn Davis). He’s so passionate about his work, and has been at it for so long, that he’s on the verge of burning out. Yet in the first half of the play, bumbling his attempt to connect with Clarence and Cristofer, he comes across as a stick-figure representative of the upper middle class.
The playwright also mars the end of her finest scene by imposing what seems to be her own voice, spelling out a lesson. Until then, it’s a lovely duet between two people who grew up poor: Cristofer and his interviewer, Rosie McNulty (Samantha Soule), a rugby coach who gradually lowers the defenses of this rough and anxious applicant.
Thurber’s script repeatedly calls for “a sense of outside” in the scene changes, and I wish the set, by the Tony Award winner Donyale Werle (Peter and the Starcatcher), had achieved that. Normal though it is to ignore a playwright’s scenic wishes, honoring that one seems important when the main characters are physically out of place, in a new and more expansive geography.
Still, there is no mistaking the unfamiliarity of this world to Clarence and Cristofer, or the slim chance that either of them has — coming from a background without private schools or tutors — of being granted entry to it.
“Standards exist for a reason,” a professor (Leon Addison Brown) argues. “You destroy the standards and you erode the very foundation of our civilization.”
“That’s the point,” David replies, and it couldn’t be more obvious to him. “Isn’t that the point of all this.”