The popularity of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which just weeks ago premiered on Broadway, proves that appetite for all things Potter remains more or less insatiable, even in 2018. But just a few blocks away from the Lyric Theatre, a different group of actors tests whether those same audiences are equally interested in poking fun at the decades-old franchise. Since the release of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in 1997, J.K. Rowling’s phenomenon has already been satirized in every conceivable way, from spoofs by SNL and Robot Chicken to Harry Bladder, Barry Trotter, even the Potter Puppet Pals. After more than 20 years of making fun of witchcraft and wizardry, is there anything of substance left for a parody to say?
That’s the question asked, and answered, by Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. The off-Broadway play, which has tickets available through next March and just screened a filmed version in movie theaters over the weekend, tackles Hogwarts from the perspective of its least celebrated house, Hufflepuff, long considered the home of leftover students who weren’t brave, smart, or ruthless enough to earn spots in the other school-sanctioned cliques. In this version of the story, Harry Potter is reduced to a side character, while his compatriots, Hermione and Ron, aren’t even played by actors, just a candlestick in a wig and a bright orange mop.
Instead, our would-be hero is Wayne, a schlubby transplant from New Mexico who dreams he’s destined for greatness despite being painfully ordinary. Wayne’s own trio is rounded out by Oliver, a math geek frustrated by Hogwarts’ rather limited curriculum, and Megan, a goth chick determined to prove she’s less like the other Puffs and more like her mother, a follower of Voldemort. The rest of the Puffs are an assortment of misfit background characters from the books (Hannah Abbott, Susan Bones, Justin Finch-Fletchley, etc.) united under a badger banner and by a single, less-than-ambitious goal: to place third, rather than last, in the school’s end-of-year rankings.
Matt Cox’s script doesn’t have much bite, instead delivering its jabs at Rowling’s original text with the feather end of the quill. Many of these are visual: The sorting hat is depicted as an enormous cootie catcher, while butterbeer is represented by beer bottles with Land O’Lakes labels tacked onto them. There are a few gags about the story’s ’90s setting—while Rowling’s books are basically devoid of pop culture references, Wayne’s wardrobe consists of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirts—and jokes that rely on obscure knowledge of the movies. “I am very calm,” the actor playing Dumbledore says outright while confronting Harry about the Goblet of Fire, a reference to a meme-worthy Potterhead quibble about Michael Gambon’s line delivery.
More than anything, though, Puffs mocks Hogwarts’ very model for education, which relies on sorting 11-year-olds into preconceived categories that they’re then stuck in until adulthood. These include the Braves (Gryffindor), Smarts (Ravenclaw), and Snakes (Slytherin), who “always speak like they’re about to throw a glass of white wine in your face.” Then, of course, there are the Puffs, who are, in theory, defined by their hard work and faithfulness. In Rowling’s books, the Sorting Hat even sings, “You might belong in Hufflepuff/ Where they are just and loyal/ Those patient Hufflepuffs are true/ And unafraid of toil.”
In Harry’s narrative, though, Hufflepuffs are usually tertiary characters, and the little we know about them is not particularly heroic: Their common room is near the kitchens, and they excel at magical gardening, a slightly less useful skill than Defense Against the Dark Arts. Puffs’ premise seizes on an idea about Hufflepuffs that’s now rooted more in how the house has come to be perceived than how it’s actually portrayed in Rowling’s books. Just take this mock ad for Hogwarts from Second City, in which students from Slytherin and Ravenclaw proclaim, “I’m ambitious” and “I’m really smart” to promote their respective houses. The best the vacant-eyed Hufflepuff representative can come up with is, “I can’t digest lactose.”
As far as Harry Potter parodies go, it’s hard to top A Very Potter Musical, which probably did more to cement Hufflepuff identity in popular culture than anything else on page or screen. That production, created and performed by the Chicago-based musical theater troupe StarKid, poked fun at the house’s apparent lack of importance even within the Potter universe (“What the hell is a Hufflepuff?” demands Dumbledore) and is responsible for popularizing the idea that its members are “particularly good finders.” The show also gave us Tyler Brunsman’s perpetually grinning, clueless Cedric Diggory, the platonic ideal of a Hufflepuff.
Cedric, naturally, plays an outsize part in Puffs as a kind of mentor for the rest, a charismatic standout among his unremarkable cohorts, much as he is in the books. Wayne and friends’ fourth year at school, which coincides with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, earns the subtitle “The Puffs and the Year They Mattered” in recognition of Cedric’s elevated role in the main Harry Potter plot. His untimely death at the hands of Voldemort and his cronies—which is surprisingly sad, considering the otherwise silly circumstances—becomes something of a turning point for the play, the moment when Puffs injects a little angst into the lampoonery.
Hufflepuffs have undergone a bit of image rehabilitation in recent years, especially given that the star of the new Fantastic Beasts franchise is Hufflepuff’s own Newt Scamander. Rowling herself has called it her favorite house, citing the Hufflepuffs’ valor in the final book’s Battle of Hogwarts—portrayed, in Puffs, as a bloodbath that valorizes the otherwise timid group. Puffs is rather like a Puff, itself. It’s gentle and goofy and trying its best, even when its jokes receive as many groans as laughs. “You see Potter?” asks Oliver during the show’s inevitable epilogue. “I feel bad for him, his family, his kid—he’s cursed. He’s a cursed child. Parts One and Two.”
Perhaps the show’s Puff-iest quality of all is that it’s being eclipsed by the much flashier production down the street—and it’s OK with that.