Harry Potter parody from O'Connell & Company at Shea's Smith Theatre
By ANTHONY CHASE
I have never read a Harry Potter book. I have never seen a Harry Potter film. Neither did I see “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” on Broadway. I suppose I just wasn’t interested to, “prepare to be on the edge of [my] seat at a Tony Award®-winning spectacle that would leave [me] gasping in wonder at the magic of it all.”
In fact, sitting in the audience at Shea’s Smith Theatre, waiting for “Puffs,” a parody of the Harry Potter franchise to begin, the jokey yet inane voice-overs reminded me of the soundtrack on the endless queue for a theme park ride, and I thought, “Good Lord. What have I gotten myself into?”
And yet, I was entirely engaged and laughed heartily for over two and a half hours, as I took in the antics of a capable and energetic crew of zanies, embarking on the humorous tale of Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic.
This is a confection from 2015 by playwright Matt Cox, retelling the famed and successful (if ignored by me) book series by J.K. Rowling, told from the perspective of the “Puffs,” one of the houses in a British boarding school for child wizards. The off-off Broadway show was planned as a limited 5-night offering. It would continue for the next eight months, and then be mounted off-Broadway, where it ran for two years of performances, none of which was seen by me.
To get the obvious out of way, yes, the show is chockablock full of inside jokes and references to the Harry Potter films, whereby an actor entering with a band-aid hiding his entire nose inspires stomach-endangering spasms of laughter. The thing about inside jokes is that you don’t need to recognize the reference to know that an inside joke is happening. The fact of the reference is all there is to the joke, and it is joyful to see the audience laugh in recognition. I was never left wondering where the plot was going. I never felt left out of the fun, not ever.
It seems, as the pandemic lingers on, that theaters have decided comedy is the tonic we all need. With “Puffs,” O’Connell & Company adds an animated and free-spirited spoof to current downtown comedies that include “Waiting for Godot” at Irish Classical and “The Siegel,” a Lightbulb Project production at Alleyway. Of the three, “Puffs” is the most outrageously, unabashedly, unsophisticatedly slapstick laugh riot. To use 1990s references, appropriate to the piece, this is half “Mad Magazine," half "After School Special.”
It does help to understand that British schools are organized into groups of students, or “houses,” each represented by a color. The kids are awarded “house points” for good behavior and impressive accomplishments, and they can lose “house points” for disgracing themselves, and therefore the school. The Puffs are the “Hufflepuffs” in the Harry Potter books (and yes, I googled that).
In this play, the Puffs are a ragtag bunch of losers. In the annual pursuit for the school cup, determined by the accumulation of house points, the Puffs always come in dead last. This becomes important when Wayne, an orphaned boy from New Mexico who has been raised by his remote Uncle Dave, is informed that his parents were British and that he is a wizard. On top of that, he is being shipped off to wizard boarding school in England for the next seven years. Naturally, he is selected to be a “Puff.”
What follows is a rapid-paced series of high stakes adventures involving good and evil, set against an atmosphere of adolescent angst about everything from self-identity to sexual anxiety.
At one point, Wayne, played with irresistible insouciance in the midst of high stakes drama by Nicholas Lama, laments that in its obsession with life-threatening adventures, this school has abandoned all pretense of education. That was among my favorite laugh lines. (My sense of humor often tilts British).
We have director Joey Bucheker to thank for a great deal of the fun in an evening that nails its tone and pace to perfection, moving seamlessly from episode to hilarious episode at lightning speed. He is enabled in this wanton act of comedy by a large and stunningly talented ensemble.
Years ago, I noted that some of the finest actors in the region were coming, not from acting schools, but from improv comedy groups. This is a team worthy of “Saturday Night Live.” Everyone is special, individual, and engaging.
The roster of talent is as follows:
Nathanial Higgins is perfection as the narrator whose dry wit sets the tone and helps us keep tabs on where we are in the wayward narrative.
Nicholas Lama as Wayne, the misfit hero of the show, the perpetual fish out of water, is delightful as he faces each new humiliation and disappointment.
Adorable Christian Hines is impeccable as Oliver, the boy with a gift for math, which is useless at a school that doesn’t seem to have much of an academic curriculum, and as constantly charming as he is perpetually ready for every unexpected adventure.
Kris Bartolomeo as Megan, the obligatory angry student from an abusive family background, is simultaneously funny and affecting, giving a dynamic performance as we wait for her cold heart to be melted by the magic of love and friendship.
Jenn Stafford, the Madeline Kahn of Buffalo, is brilliant as always, in the role of bullied Hannah and as Megan’s abusive family background.
David Wysocki giving an unbridled and tour de force as Cedric the head Puff, and noseless Mr. Voldy, the personification of evil, brings precision and focus to a performance that is deliberately all over the place.
The rest of the ensemble demonstrates an impressive capacity to take on and discard characters in fast succession:
Marissa Biondolillo is paranoiac Susie Bones, Harry, and Others.
Mike Benoit is happy J, Finch, Fletchly (who gets petrified by a snake), and a host of others.
Daniel Lendzian is Ernie Mac and Others.
Gabrielle Nunzio channels Elaine May as Sally Perks and Others.
Sabrina Kahwaty is annoyingly animated Leanne and others. I am ashamed to say I laughed heartily at her eager character’s abrupt death.
In a production that looks appropriately handmade, as if for a school play, scenic coordination by Bill Baldwin and costumes by Sara Jo Kukulka are playful and inventive. Light by Matthew DiVita, props by Alley Griffin, and sound design by Matt Cox artfully create the magic required by the story.
For full disclosure, my avoidance of Harry Potter is only partially generational. It is also informed by my friendship with Maurice Sendak who was, before J.K. Rowling, the most successful children’s book author since Hans Christian Andersen. (Okay there was Dr. Seuss, but anyway). Maurice despised Harry Potter and predicted that, “When these kids get older, they will realize that the whole thing is derivative of Tolkien!” Sadly, what Maurice didn't know is that after Harry Potter, millennials, and generations x and z would never read another book again.
I once gave Maurice a volume of Harry Potter that I had hollowed out to create a secret storage place for a homoerotic ABC book. A man with a devilish sense of humor, he loved both the ABC book and “seeing that [Harry Potter] book defiled in that way!”
“Puffs” tickled my funny bone on many different levels, even without (and maybe especially because) I don’t know Harry Potter. If I ever do see the movies, or read the books, my pleasure will be informed by having seen “Puffs.” For the record, I have read Tolkien.
"Puffs" continues through February 13th. Proof of vaccination is required.