“I came up with the idea for Puffs on a subway,” says writer Matt Cox. You could say the idea for the Harry Potter comedy hit him like a lightning bolt, and the idea left a mark—one that materialized as a play, rather than a scar on his forehead. “[I was] following a funny idea of, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it have sucked to have been a student at that school during that time?’”
Puffs: Or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic celebrated its one-year anniversary Off-Broadway at Midtown’s New World Stages, having transferred there July 17 after a successful run at Off-Broadway’s Elektra Theatre (and an Off-Off-Broadway run at the People’s Improv Theatre prior to that). But Puffs’ greatest accomplishment isn’t its healthy run.
Emanating from the original seven-book Harry Potter series that sparked an ever-expanding franchise, Cox has achieved something remarkable with Puffs: He wrote a show that carves its own identity and adheres to it like a constitution. It’s a play that establishes its own tone of wacky, scrappy, hilarious, and heartfelt as it creates the untold story of kids just trying to go to school while “heroic” Harry Potter runs off to fight the Dark Lord and the new threats descending upon Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with each passing year.
“[I thought] ‘It could be fun to watch these kids through seven years as it gets worse, and worse, and worse. It was a quick jump over to focusing on the Puffs, because pop culture has deemed them as the losers,” he says of the fourth house of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding school, the Hufflepuffs.
In her original series, Gryffindors excel in courage, Ravenclaws in brains, Slytherins in malice, and Hufflepuffs in… well that’s Cox’s point. The Puffs, as he’s renamed them for his show, are overlooked and undervalued—perfect for the triumph of an underdog story.
Part of pinpointing the show’s identity was the creation of an offshoot universe, parallel to that of the Harry Potter realm. Gryffindors are Braves, Ravenclaws are Smarts, Slytherins are Snakes, and Hufflepuffs are Puffs; Hogwarts is “a certain school of magic and magic;” performances are spot on even for unnamed characters. While Cox initially wrote the veiled references to protect the play (“We want to be able to do the show and legally there are certain things we were pretty sure you just can’t say,” he says), legal limitations fostered an elevated level of clever. “It becomes a matter of ‘What’s some of the fun we can have with the world itself?’” says Cox. “It became a playground to have fun with because of legal reasons. It made it sillier.”
Tailor-made for Harry Potter superfans—with deep cut references to specific spells, professorial quirks, and more—the production also succeeds in pop culture humor (all of Victor Krum’s lines in the Book Four section are lines from Ivan Drago in Rocky IV), improv based on current events, and general human hilarity.
And Cox’s script lands thanks to his talented multi-tasking cast, all but one of whom transferred from the original PIT production. “I knew what was really funny about a lot of these people and then wanted to cram [that] into whichever characters as I saw them,” Cox says.
For all of its howl-a-minute fun, Puffs works because it is more than a jaunty spoof.
“Having the heart and the depth of emotion along with all these silly, silly jokes was such a big focus for us,” Cox continues. “You can make people feel genuine emotion a lot more if you really made them laugh a lot. It puts people in a little bit of a vulnerable state; but it’s also, through laughter, you get people to really grow attached to characters and plot beats.”