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Theatre Review by David Hurst - April 23, 2018

Glenn Davis, Juan Castano, and Ato Blankson Wood
Photo by Joan Marcus

The academic stakes couldn't be higher in MCC Theater's new drama, Transfers, by the prolific, downtown playwright Lucy Thurber at the Lucille Lortel. First staged in the summer of 2016 at Vassar's Powerhouse Theater in conjunction with New York Stage and Film, Transfers tells the story of two inner-city youths with a shared history who unexpectedly find themselves vying against each other for a scholarship which will allow them to transfer from their community college in the South Bronx to an exclusive college in Western Massachusetts. Dark secrets are revealed while the process of how tough decisions are made in the world of high-stakes academia is put under the spotlight in Thurber's tense and heartbreaking play.

Comprised of five intermission-less scenes, Transfers opens on a snowy winter's day at Herrell College in Massachusetts where Clarence Matthews (Ato Blankson-Wood, excellent) has arrive for a scholarship interview he thinks is just a formality. Accompanying him is David DeSantos (a hyper-kinetic Glenn Davis), the liaison for the scholarship candidates from the nonprofit sponsor whose job it is to quickly prep them for their interviews the next day. No sooner has Clarence learned his scholarship isn't a done deal than Cristofer Rodriguez (Juan Castano, superb) joins them in the crowded hotel room. Cristofer instantly recognizes Clarence from the old neighborhood in New York on 163rd Street, but Clarence initially feigns no memory of knowing him. What follows is a lot of clunky exposition and contrived excuses for one person or another to exit the hotel room so the remaining coupling of characters can converse. It strains credulity but it's a testament to Blankson-Wood and Castano that we're already hooked on where their story is going. Not so much with Davis, whose manic tone and overwrought gestures grow wearisome almost immediately. The following two scenes are Clarence's interview with Geoffrey Dean (Leon Addison Brown, terrific) which goes beautifully, and Cristofer's interview with Coach Rosie McNulty (the wonderful Samantha Soule), which gets off to a rocky start before the two connect over shared life experiences. These are quickly followed by a ridiculous scene in which DeSantos, Dean and McNulty meet to discuss the candidates and select who will get one of the four scholarships available. The play concludes with a short coda in which Clarence and Cristofer meet again briefly to come to terms with what's happened to them.

Smoothly directed by longtime Thurber collaborator Jackson Gay, Transfers benefits from an exceptional scenic design by Donyale Werle which magically converts the initial hotel room into two faculty offices, a conference room and a café. It also benefits from two magnetic lead portrayals by Blankson-Wood and Castano, the latter of whom is reprising his role from the New York Stage and Film production in 2016. Their understated performances, along with their interviewers Brown and Soule, also wonderful, make for compelling theatre about ideas seldom, if ever, talked about in plays. In particular, Cristofer's interview scene with Coach McNulty is almost the perfect realization of writing, directing and acting where Castano and Soule hold the audience captive in their shared reality of connection.

For more than fifteen years, Thurber has been writing character-driven plays about people in dire circumstances who "want" something and she's become an astute observer of whether they get what they're searching for, the road they take to get there, and what it may have cost them along the way. New York audiences have recently seen Thurber's The Insurgents, produced by Labyrinth in 2015, as well as her monumental 5-play cycle, The Hill Town Plays, which were produced by Rattlestick in 2013: Killers and Other Family, Where We're Born, Stay, Scarcity and Ashville. While not perfect, Transfers takes Thurber in new directions in terms of subject matter and plotting, and her genuine affection for her deeply flawed characters shines through as it does in all her writing.

Through May 13
MCC Theater at The Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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