Review: ‘Puffs’ at the PIT. The Best Comedy in Town.
Thomas Burns Scully
This year I had my life-changed a little bit by a show. ‘Kapow-i GoGo’ by Matt Cox, a four-and-a-half hour long episodic ode to the anime genre, took me by surprise, shook me to the toenails with laughter, and entered my pantheon of favorite shows of all time. When you see a lot of theatre, as you do when you’re a reviewer, it’s easy to become unfazed by what you see. Even if you can objectively conclude that a show has merit in concept, design or execution, genericism creeps in to a lot of theatre and switches off the part of your brain that makes you pay attention. ‘Kapow-i GoGo’ was not a show that did that. ‘Kapow-i’ was a noisy, explosive, cuddly and hilarious thunder-brew of theatre that stood up and demanded you care. Alas, it closed earlier this year. And I was sad that I was no longer able to direct people down to the PIT to get their fix of great theatre and free cereal. However, please once again direct yourself towards 24th street, because the ‘Kapow-i’ team are back, and this time… they’ve brought badgers.
‘Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic’ is a brand new comedy that takes a look at the Harry Potter universe (although without ever calling it such). Essentially, it is a sideways look at the wizarding series, taken from the perspective of the Hufflepuff house. It follows the story of Wayne, a an orphan from New Mexico who finds out he’s a wizard. Upon arrival at a notable school of boy magic and girl magic he gets sorted in to the ‘Puff’ house, the fourth most popular house. He makes fast friends with a math prodigy (which is completely useless at a magic school) and a counterculture witch with an emo obsession. Over the course of his seven years at school he learns about magic (which is hard), herbology (which is awesome), badgers, and even forms a budding kinship with Cedric, the greatest Puff of them all. Most importantly, though, he learns about the importance of the house cup, and the Puffs’ number one aspiration: to not come last despite overwhelming odds.
Matt Cox is just an astounding writer. Gag-for-gag, his scripts are as funny as any of the biggest comedies on Broadway right now. Watching anything from his portfolio being performed Off-Off Broadway is like watching Rocky Balboa fighting in a Middle School Junior Varsity Boxing Intramural. ‘Punching above his weight’ doesn’t even come close to describing it. His writing is just too damn funny. Every line is a new experience in “Wow, that was great! What’s next?” Of course, a good script is nothing without a talented cast, and fans of ‘Kapow-i’ will be glad to recognize a few familiar faces in Puffs. Evan Maltby returns, playing Cedric, the charming, hunky antithesis of his former alter-ego ‘Tuxedo Gary’. Kapow-i herself, the wonderful Madeleine Bundy, is back (in a role with considerably lighter-lifting) as the sidelined (and slightly entitled) Harry Potter. Andrea Miller makes a welcome reappearance, playing the most dim-witted of all the Puffs; as does Stephen Stout, playing both Snape and Dumbledore. All of them are fantastic as they ever were, and pleasures to see doing what they do best.
The three leads, Wayne, played by Zac Moon, and his Ron and Hermione stand-ins Langston Belton and Julie Ann Earls all deliver, and deserve special attention for what they bring to the table. It’s not easy being the straight actor in a comic play, particularly in a show like ‘Puffs’. It’s not that these characters never get a funny line, they get plenty and deliver them well, but when the rest of your cast is doing over-zealous Alan Rickman impressions and silly Dumbledore voices, it can potentially overshadow your, comparatively normal, leads. And these three don’t let that happen, for which they deserve tumultuous applause. Jessie Cannizzaro, Nick Carillo, AJ Ditty, and Ellie Philips round out the rest of the cast, all of them special and funny in their own fantastic and brilliant ways, but sadly fall victim to ‘not enough space in this review’ syndrome, which is why I won’t go in to depth about how much fun they all are. Much to my chagrin. Put simply, the cast are great, and they do Cox’s script a great service.
As does Director Kristin McCarthy Parker, the, now award-winning, stage co-ordinator and actor-wrangler who helped bring ‘Kapow-i’ to life. With ‘Puffs’, Parker is now three-for-three on shows that have made me laugh myself silly. Like all great directors, I can’t tell you exactly what it is she does from watching the play, but I know she’s doing something very right. Her invisible hand is more invisible than most, but something about the way she works seems to allow her actors more freedom to be whimsical and silly than many other Downtown productions. Maybe its her history with the actors (she and many of the cast come out of The Flea), maybe its something particular to her way of working, maybe she’s born with it, maybe it’s Maybelline. I can’t say for certain. But shows that she works on consistently have an excellent comradeship, indomitable candor, and a complete freedom from the fear of being silly. Her directorial stylings, and Matt Cox’s command of words and funny go together like Lennon and McCartney. She is the Hermione to his Harry.
Of course, the question some of you may be asking is: how does ‘Puffs’ stack up against ‘Kapow-i’? Well, like ‘Kapow-i GoGo’, ‘Puffs’ is a brilliantly put-together, and spectacularly observed satire on a genre or series. Like ‘Kapow-i GoGo’, ‘Puffs’ understand that to do good parody of something, you need to really love and understand what it is you are making fun of. Like ‘Kapow-i GoGo’, ‘Puffs’ creates endearingly funny characters that you grow attached to, and then genuinely miss when they are unexpectedly offed; and I’ve already raved about the script, cast and direction. ‘Puffs’ is the equal of its predecessor in every thematic and qualitative way that matters, there’s no question about it. The only real difference is in length. ‘Puffs’ is a less-intimidating eighty minutes, compared to ‘Kapow-i’s two-hundred and seventy minutes. It does mean it feels less epic than ‘Kapow-i’, and perhaps slightly less ‘hardcore’, but aside from that, it’s just as good as its foremother. And that’s saying something. Though I do miss the free cereal.
If you’ve ever read a ‘Harry Potter’ book, or seen any of the movies, then you will like ‘Puffs’. I watched this play and I laughed and laughed and laughed, my favorite kind of evening at the theatre. It’s ridiculously quotable (“And now, year four… the year when the Puffs actually mattered!”, “We are staring at a lake. Just staring at a lake.”, “Sorry, this was more of a thing for Harry.”) If ‘Puffs’ were a movie, it would be ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’, ‘Airplane’ or ‘Hot Fuzz’. One of those movies that you can watch again and again in the company of friends who have also seen it a hundred times. Moreover, it is a great piece about being important, even if you don’t feel important, about being a side-character in the story of someone else’s life. You can’t pay $10 bucks to see a show this funny anywhere else in New York. Anywhere. Do yourself a favor and head on down to the PIT. Like the play that came before it, ‘Puffs’ is a must-see.
‘Puffs’ runs at the People’s Improv Theatre until February 28th. Tickets are $10. Purchasing links and full show schedule available at puffstheplay.com and thepit-nyc.com/puffs/.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)