NEW YORK CITY — This is my third review this year of Matt Cox’s play Puffs, Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, but as a rabid Harry Potter fan, I found a new way to experience a show that I had seen many times. In February, I watched Puffs at Utah State University, accompanied by a huge fan of the books. In June, I enjoyed the West Valley Arts production of Puffs with another peer. This time, I tuned into the recorded version on BroadwayHD, and I watched it with my oldest children, to whom I have read all seven of the canonical Harry Potter stories. (No, Fantastic Beasts and Cursed Child do not count in this nerd’s opinion). Yet, watching Puffs with my children — who know the stories, but not the subculture — showed how accessible Puffs is to audience members who are not diehard Potterheads.
Puffs relates all seven years of the Harry Potter story from the perspective of the overlooked humdrums of Hufflepuff House. The added wrinkle is that four non-canon characters — Wayne Hopkins, Oliver Rivers, Megan Jones, and the Narrator — highlight the struggle of feeling like a secondary character in someone else’s story, as any side character in Harry Potter’s towering shadow must have felt. The play is part Potter parody, and part gut-punching tragedy, which hits an emotional crescendo in the show’s protagonist, Wayne, asking why he had to die having never mattered.
I have seen the recorded version more than a dozen times at this point. Zac Moon is Wayne Hopkins, and other performances are just actors acting as Zac Moon. Hopkins is prototypically awkward, but has an irrational confidence that makes me believe, despite his failings, that he is going to somehow outshine Harry. Moon’s performance is so grounded in the bodily discomfort, but reckless enthusiasm, that I see in so many of my middle school students. The recorded performance feels so fresh each time, as Moon’s reactions to the situations his character finds himself in are so sincere. After being aggressively smooched by a fellow Hufflepuff in one scene, Wayne enters the next blurting, “I’m not running from a sexual encounter!” and I can see on his face that he is hearing those words before he has processed them mentally. Moon’s performance and Wayne’s character are universally accessible for people who struggle at times to feel like they stand out in a meaningful way.
One of the things that Potter fans love is how dozens of characters matter, even those who only appear briefly. Across the seven volumes, 200 different characters are seen or referenced at least a dozen times. Cox threads this dynamic so well through the play by having an ensemble of seven actors (not including the four leads) play over 40 different characters. It is hard to pick from the seven who stands out, as each excels in different moments. Andy Miller’s Leanne is blissfully aloof while delivering a profound rallying cry, “We have to fight, or we may never learn how that hat talks!” which has become a call to action in my own home. Yet, she also navigates several other highly distinctive characters. So, too, for Madeline Bundy, who plays a morose Susie Bones and the most hilariously maladjusted portrayal of the Boy Who Lived imaginable.
The trouble with Puffs, as I noticed in this streaming production, is that so many of the jokes land best when an audience member not only understands the stories, but also the underpinnings of what makes Harry Potter lovers tick. At one point, Stephen Stout, who is lampooning Michael Gambon’s portrayal of Albus Dumbledore says, “Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire, Harry? I’m the definition of calm right now.” This joke lands because Gambon infamously freaks out during this scene when the book specifies that Dumbledore was calm, to the chagrin of book purists. There rapid-fire dialogue in some sequences does not allow audiences to process why a joke is funny before it has moved on, an issue that I noticed while watching Puffs with my children. Sure, jokes with more mature references went over their heads entirely, but in some instances, I had to pause the recording and explain why it was funny that Oliver said that Potter’s son was a Cursed Child. Comedies tend to require some background knowledge to activate, and while most of the core story is accessible, these masterfully crafted nods to those waiting for a Hogwarts letter may have left some audience members lacking a lumos spell for the humor.
All that said, the emotional moments of Puffs are very raw and personal. I get choked up every time I watch the final fight as loyal Hufflepuffs that I have spent 90ish minutes learning to love are killed right and left. The moments when the Hufflepuffs realize that things have taken a turn for the worst — and how that bears out on the lives of Wayne and his friends in the ensuing scenes — is heartrending. The filming is masterful in finding the right moments to show the whole stage, and other moments to focus in on mid-shots or close ups of a particular actor. The BroadwayHD version gives audience members the same experience as sitting in the first row of a live show.
The technical wizardry of the production is also impressive. So many little details bring the world of the play to life. The show is set in the 1990s, and Wayne wears T-shirts that say things such as “Teenage Mutant Wizard Turtles.” There are genuinely impressive magic tricks where fake birds appear, seemingly out of thin air when spells are cast. Dementors (the soul sucking creatures who drain happiness) are more terrifying as massive puppets with strobe effects than in the films. Many sound effects are straight out of 1990s sitcoms, and the soundscape adds such a wonderful touch to the production throughout the show.
Is subscribing to BroadwayHD to watch Puffs on demand worthwhile? The answer is a resounding “yes.” So many comedies age badly or are only enjoyable once. For someone, like me, who wants to go back to Hogwarts again and again, Puffs has immense rewatchability. I find new moments of nuance in the same recorded performance each time, and wish I had more filmed versions of it to watch. If BroadwayHD streamed a live show of Puffs every night from a different theatre company, it would make my calendar regularly. Even those too young to get all the jokes (or too much of a muggle to appreciate all the details of the play) will enjoy the physical humor and profound message of the play.