Background becomes foreground, foreground becomes background and the extras take the place of the leading players in “Puffs,” an overstretched but affectionate and often clever spoof of “Harry Potter” that combines the storylines of all seven books with the existentialist angst of Samuel Beckett and the underdog spirit of 1990s kiddie sports movies like “The Mighty Ducks.”
Written by Matt Cox and directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker, “Puffs” premiered two years ago at the Peoples Improv Theater and has been playing at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages over the past year, making it one of Off-Broadway’s relatively few commercial hits. A few months ago, a live recording was even screened in movie theaters, lending it even more visibility.
With the assistance of a narrator (who provides commentary to guide the audience), “Puffs” rushes through the events of the books (in just under two hours) from the point of view of Hufflepuff, the least explored (and least interesting) of the four school houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The concept is not unlike Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” which retold “Hamlet” from the point of view of two minor characters who seemed to have no ability to take an active role in the storytelling or prevent their inevitable fate.
With the exception of the charismatic heartthrob Cedric Diggory, the students picked as Puffs are depicted as oddball misfits sporting low expectations, who are happy to pursue their wizarding educations and drink their “adult butter beverages” without getting into any danger — unlike some other people.
Cedric, insisting that the Puffs are “a bunch of nice, fun, happy people,” urges them to make a focus on a realistic goal such as placing third instead of last in the House Cup tournament. “Third or nothing!” they all excitedly vow.
Instead of Harry Potter (who makes a few awkward cameos) and Ron and Hermione (who are reduced to a mop and wig), we get Wayne (an orphan with his own heroic aspirations), Oliver (a math geek who makes for a remedial magic student) and Megan (who angrily insists that she should not be a Puff).
Often, the Puffs simply stand around on the sidelines, physically removed or completely oblivious to the events that are going on around them. As a troll attacks the school grounds, the Puffs safely stay in their common room (in a basement next to the kitchen) and rehearse emergency protocol.
This being an unsanctioned parody, many standard names and terms are not used. Hogwarts is referred to as “a Certain School of Magic and Magic” — and no, that is not a typo. The other three houses are known as “brave” (i.e. Gryffindor) “smart” (“i.e. Ravenclaw) and “snakes” (i.e. Slytherin). Lord Voldemort here goes by the name “Mister Voldy.”
The production has an ensemble theater aesthetic, with constant activity and switching of roles among the 11 young actors, combined with limited visuals (including costumes and props that look as if they came from a lost and found bin). A lot of the dialogue feels as if it came from improv theater exercises.
By the end, “Puffs” comes to resemble a “Saturday Night Live” skit that has gone on way too long, feeling rushed in its storytelling and long-winded in its execution. Many jokes fail to land, and the humor may be too tame for its own good. The severest knock is a sly reference to Michael Gambon taking over for the late Richard Harris as Dumbledore (“I’m telling you guys, the headmaster looks different this year.”)
Nevertheless, “Puffs” offers a good deal of harmless fun and manages to embrace a cute riff on a popular franchise. “Harry Potter” fans who are unable to obtain or afford tickets to “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway (or who lack the time to sit through all five-plus hours of it) might want to consider “Puffs” as a juvenile but friendly alternative.