In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard shifted the focus at Elsinore Castle from the melancholy Dane to his two school chums, hapless pawns in the battle over the crown whose deaths are so unremarkable that they are relegated to one throw-away line in a play of nearly four thousand. In Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic, Matt Cox offers the same treatment for the residents of Hufflepuff—here, for copyright reasons, “Puff”—misfits from the Harry Potter universe who are so bottom barrel that they can be lead into an enthusiastic cheer over the notion of coming in third place.
The same year Harry Potter (Madeleine Bundy) arrives on campus, so too does Wayne (Zac Moon), determined to make his mark. Sporting a variety of barely-fitting fanboy t-shirts, and a Federation emblem on his cape, Wayne befriends fellow outcasts Oliver (Langston Belton), a math prodigy but wizarding dunce, and Megan (Julie Ann Earls), whose emo regalia betrays her disappointment at failing to land in Snake, the house that inevitably grooms each generation of evil magicians.
These sorts of things can be hit or miss affairs, but Puffs deftly balances the line between in-humor (which, as a Harry Potter virgin, I understood with varying skill) and broad vaudevillian fun. Mr. Cox gets a fair bit of mileage out of the legal gymnastics of fan fiction, and his script serves as what Hitchcock called “plausibilism,” but here the purpose of poking holes in the narrative is fun rather than smug: why, for example, are none of the adults concerned that children keep getting seriously injured at school?
The cast is lead by narrator A.J. Ditty, whose velvet smoking jacket, gel-bombed hair, and campy performance evoke Vincent Price if he were playing host to a horror anthology: jowls taut, eyelids hypnotically dilated, he tells us that heroes are “made, not born,” except when “sometimes, they are born.” Mr. Ditty is surrounded by other strong comedic actors, especially Ms. Bundy, with her wide-eyed portrayal of Harry as an obnoxiously beloved teacher’s pet, ever-stumbling into momentous encounters. “I’m the hero of the school!” she chirps after slaying a troll. “Uh oh, what’d I get into this time?” she asks after her name is pulled out of the Goblet of Fire, oblivious to the impression he is making on his unfortunate peers. Often these conversations are carried out with Ron and Hermione, the former represented by a mop, the latter by a wig.
Of course, Puffs is a universal story, the one about freaks and geeks and the jocks who outshine them. I don’t doubt an encyclopedic knowledge of Rowling’s novels would enhance the experience, but I don’t think it’s necessary, either. This is a group of talented clowns goofing off—and who doesn’t like that?