By Sandi Durell
The current production of Transfers by Lucy Thurber, from MCC Theater at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, follows a very real path of thought provoking human interest stories that are geared to significant social and societal impact. It’s about education – who gets it, who doesn’t and the inequality surrounding the system. It is relevant and asks questions as did recent former MCC productions, i.e. Relevance, School Girls: African Mean Girls Play, Hand to God.
When we meet the two protagonists, Clarence Matthews (Ato Blankson-Wood) and Cristofer Rodriguez (Juan Castano), it is winter, snow is falling and they are in a somewhat rundown motel room in Western Mass., both finalists from a local community college, with their coach David DeSantos (Glenn Davis) who is there to prep them for interviews at this elite university where they are visiting, each hoping to be chosen for a coveted scholarship. They’re both poor kids from the Bronx.
Glenn is outside in the freezing weather yapping on his cell phone to a girlfriend who is giving him a hard time, when both boys arrive separately to find they know each other from the old neighborhood. Clarence arrives first – he’s quiet, reserved. Cris barrels in with a “Yo Yo hello hello. . . how you doin-?” Their recollections are none too happy as Clarence tries to avoid being recognized by Cris, eventually having no choice but to own up to who he is. Clarence moved out of the neighborhood once it became known he was gay at a very young age. He has a sophisticated presence, is very literate, well-mannered, forthcoming and bright with a penchant for all things philosophical. Chris, on the other hand, has a nervous, manic quality about him, with a distinctive Bronx accent that augments his street talk. He’s defensive and doesn’t seem at all bright, but shows great understanding for the realities of life, just in his own style. He’s a wrestling champion, hoping for an athletic scholarship.
The fast, high spirited street talk flies until experiences about the boys’ Bronx past confronts them – Cris, living with his grandmother, dropping out to care for her and grieving for two years. They discuss memories of Renaldo, an older gangster type kid who murdered someone down by the river; the impactful meaning he had on each of their lives when they were 12. Clarence felt sexual towards him and loved him; Cris liked him because he gave him beer and smokes. Memories that evoke trauma yet result in soft, caring moments between the two boys surprise.
They prep with David, readying for their final interviews the next day when they meet Geoffrey Dean (Leon Addison Brown – The Knick) and Rosie McNulty (Samantha Soule) who coaches the Rugby team. Clarence’s interview with Mr. Dean is high level intelligent conversation, leaving Dean pleased. Cris, on the other hand, presents a big challenge for Coach McNulty as the interview goes off on a tangent and it’s more no nonsense earthy, blood and guts poured forth by both of them, allowing them to reach an understanding of similarity.
But what does it all really mean, as David has to fight a battle when Geoffrey talks about Cris’ good SAT and math scores while Clarence’s are a little bit below the other candidates, his feeling that Clarence would have great difficulty making it in the University environment. Cris’ opportunity is based on his athletic skills especially when Coach Rosie issues her stamp of approval that she’s chosen him. David’s cries to make Dean understand that it’s Clarence’s one opportunity fall on deaf ears because Dean is all about scores and University standards.
And so it is a battle, an unfair one fighting a bureaucratic system that decides a student’s potential and if he will or won’t survive.
Lucy Thurber has written a very succinct play, filled with lots of humor-laden flowing dialogue that grabs your attention. And it is Jackson Gay’s direction that makes these remarkable characters come to life. And they are first rate remarkable! But especially outstanding are Castano and Blankson-Wood who turn in solid, riveting and heart rending performances.
The somewhat seedy looking motel room easily changes over into college office space during each scenic blackout (Donyale Werle), with good lighting by Russell H. Champa.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Transfers extends thru May 20 at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street, NYC. 100 minutes no intermission. www.mcctheater.org