If you read the blurb for Lucy Thurber’s Tranfers (which runs at the Lucille Lortel Theatre through May 13th) and find that it sounds right up your alley, by all means, partake – it’s one of those plays that almost exactly matches its succinct descriptor. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable. I’d argue that any play that can be boiled down to a Twitter-length synopsis that accurately encapsulates the experience as a whole might not be operating at the level of complexity that I prefer from theatrical experiences, but sometimes, straightforward is what you want. With Transfers, straightforward you will get.
The majority of the drama is mined in a lengthy three-person opening scene set in a hotel room on the outskirts of an Ivy League campus somewhere in the northeast, snow softly falling outside – the kind of scene with carefully crafted entrances and exits to allow the two characters left behind to share some kind of exchange that will inevitably be interrupted by the re-entry of the third, then rinse and repeat. “I’m going to go take a shower,” says Clarence (deftly played by Ato Blankson-Wood), one of two prospective transfer students who have gathered here to prepare for their fellowship interviews the following day, which then requires one of the other characters to question the odd timing of this on our behalf – they’ve just arrived, it’s pre-dinner, but he’s tired from the trip up, so there you go – before conceding his exit, which then allows for the other transfer student, Cristofer (an enthusiastic Juan Castano) to warn their mentor and interview prepper David (played by Glenn Davis) that Clarence “likes dick,” relevant information in his estimation given they are to share the hotel room that evening, and so far, there’s only one bed. To which an offended David exclaims, “That’s none of our business.” Then the shower is over and Clarence comes back and David goes out in a huff to pick up the dinner, which hasn’t been delivered for some reason, allowing Clarence and Cristofer precisely the right amount of time to talk through their backstory (they know each other from back in the Bronx, before Clarence moved to Brooklyn, and seem to have shared an experience with a traumatic event while there) that reaches its emotional peak just as David returns with food. And so on. It’s kind of a murder-mystery scene, but with naturalistic application and deployed within a contemporary drama that seeks mostly to portray, as the person I was seeing it with put it better than I can, a “real story” but all the while “maintaining political correctness and liberal fantasies” in its approach to said story.
Once the opening scene concludes and the set transforms itself into an academic study, there are no more legitimate surprises in store, and Transfers plays out much as you’d expect it to, which is to say, it plays well with the rules of how a play such as this one should behave. This is in line with the tidy expectations of a prestige university and a decidedly academic approach to the subject matter, but it also casts certain dullness on the occasions that the audience witnesses. The humanistic dialogue, Thurber’s strong suit, crackles with animation and hums along at the right speed, although it has a tendency to reward emotional hyperbole. (Each monologue, placed right about when you’d expect a monologue to happen, reaches for the big reveal and chomps down hard.)
More problematically, this paint-within-the-lines approach casts the play’s point of view rather widely. Thurber is careful to include varying opinions on the effects that affirmative action has on both the institutions that implement these actions, as well as the students who are asked to, in essence, perform as though they belong at said institution without the proper support or insight as to what that’s going to mean for them and their lives (much less to say how it affects their identity). Despite a real barnburner of a performance from Juan Castano’s Cristofer, who edges himself into the emotional core of the play and isn’t really homophobic (it’s somewhat of a false flag planted in the opening moments), Transfers curiously avoids a full exploration of its own character. We look at Cristofer and Clarence from the outside in, much as the academic institution will. Their mentor, David, will later deliver a passionate monologue on the unfairness of going by test scores over emotional cues and gut impulse, which could well apply to the play’s dramaturgy as well. Which is it, scores or personality? The play’s traditional, reliably by-the-book approach works on an academic level, but does it have what it takes to establish a true emotional resonance?
Intriguingly, the plot of Transfers ends up denying entrance to the student who talks the better game and is able to display the shape shifting abilities required to fit in at a white institution, and bestows admittance on the messier, out-of-control emotional candidate. It is solely their disparate test scores that are used to dramaturgically justify this decision, and these scores are only presented to us as sidebar info (also to say, the readiness of the candidates is in opposition to what their test scores are reported to us as). It’s a bit of a bait and switch, a way for the play to manipulate our expectations as to who is going to get in (if that’s even what we’re really interested in, which at that point, is unclear – we understand that one will get it and one won’t, with a lack of certainty that the eventual reveal will engender enough intrigue to push through to the end of the play).
Were I in charge, I’d pick the messier more emotionally true-to-life version (of the student, of the play itself) as well, which contributes to a certain post-play fog of cognitive dissonance when one looks back, trying to figure out why Transfers chose to play it safe while arguing against itself.
Transfers runs to May 13, 2018. More production info can be found here.