Victor D. Ragsdale, left, and Caleb Cabrera are excellent in Crowded Fire Theater’s West Coast premiere of “Transfers.” (Courtesy Adam Tolbert)

‘Transfers’ compellingly asks: Who gets the elite education?

By the time the first scene of Lucy Thurber’s intriguing drama “Transfers” ends, you’re likely to be rooting for both competing candidates for a scholarship at an elite East Coast university. That’s how interesting and likable they both are, certainly as portrayed by Caleb Cabrera and Victor D. Ragsdale in this Crowded Fire Theater production.

The two young men, hopeful transfers from a community college, grew up, by chance, in the same neighborhood on the mean streets of the South Bronx, where they crossed paths long ago in ways that still resonate today.

They agree that they’re here, vying for a scholarship, because they’re “smart, gifted, not able to get it together in high school.”

But in many ways they’re exact opposites. Clarence (Ragsdale) is a gay, book-loving nerd (arriving in Massachusetts, he starts right out talking about Edith Wharton), and tough-talking, high-strung Christofer (Cabrera) is a wrestling champ.

Both seem out of place on this Ivy League campus, where they’ve arrived the night before their crucial, respective interviews with faculty members (one of whom is a genial scholar of Russian literature; the other an acerbic rugby coach).

They’re to be prepped for their interviews by a helpful if slightly unhinged counselor with emotional problems of his own. “Anyone can get stuck. It doesn’t matter where you come from,” he reassures the anxious applicants.

But while Christofer spews four-letter words, makes politically incorrect remarks and boasts about his athletic abilities (“I’m unbeatable!”), quiet Clarence feels like this campus, which reminds him thrillingly of Hogwarts, is where he’s meant to be.

Over the course of several scenes, Thurber’s characters continue to emerge ever more fully, and full of surprises to the point where it’s not just the two prospective students that you care about but also the two faculty members (Michael Wayne Rice and Alison Whismore, both excellent) and the counselor (an equally fine David Everett Moore).

In one particularly funny and touching scene, for example, nervous Christofer starts off his interview with the sardonic rugby coach by acting like a jerk, but as the interview progresses, it follows an unexpected and revealing path.

Ultimately, under the sharp direction of Ken Savage, every character comes fully to life over the course of a bit less than two hours.

Thurber’s gift for examining issues of social class, privilege and opportunity in America resonates through her well-rounded characters, so lovingly portrayed here.

Presented by Crowded Fire Theater
Where: Potrero Stage, 1695 18th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes March 23
Tickets: $10 to $35
Contact: (415) 523-0034,

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