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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 20, 2016

The Cast
Photo by Hunter Canning

Puffs, the wacky new romp by Matt Cox that just opened at the Elektra Theatre, answered a question I didn't realize I had while reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series: What of the fourth house?

In case you're not familiar with this little seven-book children's saga about a certain British boy wizard (ha), one of its conceits was that the young students at its central magic school were sorted into houses based on their personalities. The brave went to Gryffindor, the smart to Ravenclaw, the ambitious and cunning (and usually despicable) to Slytherin. But of the last house, the Hufflepuffs, Rowling was a bit circumspect, and though a couple of characters of significance emerged from that group, overall they remained conspicuously, even studiously, undefined.

Cox has picked up that mantle (or, as the case may be, robe) to not just tell the story of that house (here called, for perhaps obvious reasons, the Puffs), but also re-examine the epic sorcery saga from the vantage point of the perpetually left-behind wallflowers. The lead figure is ostensibly Wayne Hopkins (Zac Moon), an ordinary boy who learns of his own magical prowess while living with his Uncle Dave in Cattlepoke Springs, New Mexico, after his parents were killed in a freak chocolate frog accident, and is transported to the U.K. to develop his own powers.

Upon arrival and his sorting (by way of an enchanted hat that looks a lot like a paper fortune teller) into the Puffs, Wayne meets the Goth-ish Megan Jones (Julie Ann Earls), who feels defined by her aunt's involvement with the Evil Wizard no one dares name, and Oliver Rivers (Langston Belton), a gifted mathematician who's considerably less apt at slinging spells than solving equations. The trio must then contend with not only their own training and adolescence, but also watching, usually horrified, from the sidelines as The Boy Who Lived tackles a series of increasingly improbable and deadly challenges that keep putting this other world in rote, predictable jeopardy.

I feared going in that Cox would, as is so often the case with tales like these (Wicked, anyone?), subvert and corrupt Rowling's creations for his own less-savory ends. He doesn't. Instead, he accepts those facts and merely shifts the lens so we can see how bonkers all of Harry's actions, and the ripples they create, could look to outsiders. Take the first section, in which the always-last-place Puffs have third place in their grasp at the annual house cup challenge, only to have it stolen at the last possible moment through faculty fiat. Or a key twist from the fourth book that affects the most prominent Puff in a terrible way: I never worried about how the housemates would cope with what happened and pick up the pieces (or fail in trying) afterward. Cox has.

Julie Ann Earls, Zac Moon, and Langston Belton
Photo by Hunter Canning

Forgive me if I'm making this sound serious. True, there are instances of darkness; they're Cox's least-successful scenes in fact, as his overt moralizing and plot machinations feel more desperate than essential, with the confusing lead-up to the finale almost irreparably messy. But most of the time, it's a pure, and purely enjoyable, lark, and Cox has no difficulty expanding the silliness in new ways.

Sometimes this relates to the books: The stuffy narrator, played with mock-Masterpiece Theatre sincerity by an excellent A.J. Ditty, is almost killed beneath the weight of the fifth book when it's thrown. Sometimes it's the films: The school's headmaster changes—genders—halfway through with no explanation, a "greasy-haired potions teacher" (perfectly played by Stephen Stout) mumbles his lines à la Alan Rickman, Megan muses that "that Longbottom kid" will "probably stay ugly forever"). Occasionally it's the unique language of the theatre, as with a crazy puppet-show history lesson. It's up to the minute, too, with call-outs to the new movie coming out next month and the hit London play that's already working on a New York run. And though I was sure I knew the story expertly, I didn't get every reference Cox lobbed. (What's the deal with J. Finch Fletchley being imaginary?)

But throughout, Cox's treatment is dispensed with respect, admiration, and even love for the originals, which makes the jokes funnier and the budget-minded production even more endearing. Director Kristin McCarthy Parker has done a terrific job crafting a glittering variety of effects, from flying dementors and malfunctioning spells to split-second transformations and stage-packed battles, without losing either the sprawling scope or the innate sense of wonder that fuels them. The sets (by Liz Blessing and Madeleine Bundy) and costumes (Bundy) are suggestive at best, but wryly attractive and humorous in their own, ever-evolving ways. Michelle Kelleher's lights, Brian Hoes's music (inspired by John Williams's film score), and Cox's sound design smartly round things out.

The 12 members of the cast are all pitched at just the right level of confused caffeination, and give in to neither pure mimicry of iconic Harry Potter actors like Maggie Smith and Richard Harris nor the inclination to blaze their own original trails. Moon and Belton are dynamic comic leads that wring every laugh from their fish-out-of-water characters; Earls, saddled with a role Cox falls short at making more of, is less able to settle on a consistent characterization. Eleanor Philips is also a hoot as the air-headed Hannah, and James Fouhey nicely projects the clueless bravado of Puff heartthrob Cedric.

Are any of the performances, like the script itself, legendary? Probably not. But by the time the last scene (set, naturally, 19 years in the future) rolls around, Cox and his crew have built up enough momentum and good will to get you to care about their final flourish, something that by all accounts really shouldn't be possible after a substance-free 90-minute riff on someone else's theme. That's just the way it goes: Puffs, like its underdog namesakes and others like them, can sometimes surprise you.

Through January 1, 2017
The Elektra Theater, 300 West 43rd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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