Cristofer, a wrestling star, and Clarence, who is gay and of a more literary bent, are students from the same urban community college who are competing for scholarships at an upper-tier, Williams-like institution in western Massachusetts. They are there under the aegis of an inclusivity program overseen by the exhaustingly idealistic David DeSantos (a highly animated Glenn Davis).
The play begins in a hotel room that the three men have been forced to share because of a scheduling snafu. (Donyale Werle designed the leafy-tree-framed convertible set.) Everyone is on a short fuse, and David’s efforts to prep Cristofer and Clarence for their interviews the next day result in the sort of clashes that send people bolting into the snowy night to cool down.
Clarence pretends not to have met Cristofer before. But each knows uncomfortable details about the other’s past, an awareness that initially keeps them at a coiled remove.
The cast is rounded out by Leon Addison Brown as Geoffrey Dean, a pompous professor of literature who is assigned to assess Clarence, and Samantha Soule as Rosie McNulty, the hard-shelled rugby coach who vets Christofer. In both encounters, the interviewers wind up talking as much about themselves as their interviewees do, and Coach McNulty’s session with Christofer improbably degenerates into an all-out psychological striptease.
The plot’s (marginal) suspense lies in which, if either, of the young men will be accepted by the school. Will it be Clarence, whose interview seemed to go so smoothly, or Cristofer, who self-imploded in his? Their fates are decided in the play’s penultimate scene, in which the older characters argue passionately, while revealing the arbitrariness and blind spots of any college admissions process. (That subject is addressed more satirically this season in Joshua Harmon’s “Admissions.”)
Ms. Thurber — the fertile author of “The Hill Town Plays,” a five-work cycle portraying blue collar lives in rural New England — was herself a scholarship student, at Sarah Lawrence College. That experience, she has said, helped shape “Transfers,” as did the histories of the students she mentored as the director of the MCC Theater Youth Company’s Playwriting Lab.
Yet while many of the details of “Transfers” may have been taken from life, it often feels drawn from the yellowing pages of vintage American culture-clash dramas and topical “Blackboard Jungle”-style films. The cast members work hard at overcoming the formulaic nature of their lines but are generally more persuasive in their moments of bristling silence.
Mr. Blankson-Wood, who made a fierce impression as a rising R&B star in “The Total Bent” at the Public Theater two years ago, turns in a confidently low-key performance here. Mr. Castano (“Oedipus El Rey”) has presence to burn, but he endows Cristofer with a Brando-esque excess of nervous intensity.
The hot-and-cold chemistry between these young actors provides the show’s most genuine sparks of emotional credibility, as Cristofer and Clarence gradually acknowledge the shared history that binds them. You should know, though, that this is the sort of play in which you find yourself counting down to the moment when these mutually suspicious rivals fall into a supportive bear hug.