What makes a Hufflepuff a Hufflepuff? It’s a question that hoards of Harry Potter superfans have attempted to answer while determining their own house alignment, and with little help from the books themselves. The vaguely defined house suited for seemingly anyone who doesn’t fit into the other three has been the subject of much mockery over the years, such as the classic Second City “I’m a Hufflepuff” skit and the proud claim in A Very Potter Musical that Hufflepuffs are “very good finders.”
Puffs: or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, now playing at New World Stages in NYC, at first appears to be yet another extension of the joke. But ultimately Puffs reveals itself as a much more substantial, thoughtful, and heartfelt play than it first appears; it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by way of Potter, exploring what happens when you move the camera towards the sidelines of a story as monumental as that of the source material. And it’s certainly not one joke stretched out to an hour and a half – the witty lines come at a mile a minute, and basically every one of them hits.
Puffs primarily follows Wayne (Zac Moon), an American orphan who finds out one day that he’s a wizard and shortly after gets sorted into the Puffs (the play never refers to the houses by their full names; the remaining three are called simply “Brave,” “Smart,” and “Snake”).
Wayne’s vast knowledge of pop culture has him prepared to live out the classic hero story and become the greatest, most important wizard who ever lived… so when he continuously fails in his numerous attempts to have any effect on the events that transpire at Hogwarts, it’s more than a little disappointing. He’s joined by Oliver (Langston Belton), a math savant but a deeply incompetent wizard, and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), the daughter of a Death Eater who wants anything but to be a Puff.
While each of the three leads has their goals set from the start – Wayne wants to be a hero, Oliver wants to do well in school again, Megan wants to live up to her mother’s name – the play mostly puts their arcs on the backburner while it focuses instead on their peripheral roles in Potter’s story.
This works remarkably well given the goals set forth with the show’s premise; Puffs doesn’t try to convince you that the Puffs are the truly important or interesting house, but instead celebrates their unimportance, drawing comedy and drama from a recognition that the large majority of the Hogwarts student body must have felt like tertiary characters for their entire education. When the troll starts running loose in the school in year one, the Puffs don’t run to fight it – they march in formation yelling, “We are not a threat! Please be our friend!”
The three leads are almost continuously accompanied onstage by the remaining 8 cast members, all of whom switch off between playing other Puffs – various original characters save for Cedric Diggory (James Fouhey) – and the more iconic Potter names like Dumbledore, Voldemort, and the Boy Who Lived himself (Ron and Hermione, however, are only ever represented by a pair of brooms that Harry carries around).
It’s the blend of these enchanting and vibrant new personalities with creative portrayals of the original cast that especially makes Puffs worth the watch, and even the characters who have a handful of lines remain memorable. Belton’s Oliver stands out by both cohering to the hypernerd stereotype and transcending it, and Madeleine Bundy’s depiction of Potter as a wide-eyed simpleton who more or less stumbles into his world-saving accomplishments has become perhaps my new favorite version of the character in any derivative work.
Side note: folks who haven’t experienced the Potter books or movies probably shouldn’t bother with Puffs, but those who grew up with the franchise will certainly be rewarded. When the students show up for their third year, Oliver exclaims, “Guys, I swear the Headmaster looks different this year!” And ultimately, it’s these fans who will get the most out of the play, but even casual Potterheads will likely leave with a new perspective on the story and a gut sore from laughing.
Puffs: or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic is written by Matt Cox and directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker. Tickets are now on sale at www.puffstheplay.com.