Now playing at the Little Shubert Theatre off-Broadway.
More than a decade has passed since I saw The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), but I remember the madcap play with great fondness. It’s incredibly silly, of course—as any compression of several dozen works into a single production put on by just three actors on a bare-bones stage is bound to be—but it’s also clever and inventive (Titus Andronicus as a cooking show—ha!), and it demonstrates real knowledge of and affection for Shakespeare’s oeuvre. Complete might wear its learning lightly, but you’re bound to get more out of it if you know how grotesque Titus really is, and how a Freudian reading of Hamlet works, and how the same elements really do pop up over and over again in the comedies.
Anyway, I thought of Complete when a visiting family member suggested we check out Potted Potter, which purports to cover all seven Harry Potter books in under seventy minutes. I guess I assumed it would be the same kind of thing: silly but entertaining for anyone who knows the books well (and yes, I know the books well—I’m the kind of person who happily absorbs every detail of that kind of world-building saga) and maybe even insightful on occasional. I didn’t think that was too much to expect.
Sadly, it was—which still puzzles me. After all, Rowling’s work is considerably more accessible than Shakespeare’s, and its familiar conventions and goofy names and endearing foibles are ripe for parody (I say that with all affection). Yet unlike their more scholarly predecessors, Dan Clarkson and Jeff Turner, the writer-performers of Potted Potter, don’t seem to understand that parody can’t be free-floating; it must be attached to something. The target matters. Simply mugging about and changing from one dumb costume to another might be mildly amusing if your audience is feeling generous, but it hardly rises to the level of satire. Perhaps I was foolish to have expected more, but I did, and I was sorely disappointed.
As performers, Dan and Jeff (that’s what they go by onstage, so referring to them by their surnames seems strange) share an amiable, bumbling enthusiasm. Sean compared them to camp counselors doing a skit, which strikes me as about right. They bounce around and giggle at their own dim jokes and project such innocent giddiness that knocking them too much feels a bit churlish.
But whatever, let’s be mean: The core problem of Potted Potter is that Dan and Jeff mistakenly believe that they themselves can be the attraction here. They have their little scenario about how Dan is much more a Potter fan than Jeff, and how Jeff is crazy-obsessed with Quidditch, and how Jeff has blown the whole play budget on a single effect—and these are major running jokes, called back again and again, and honestly, who cares? Even if they had stuck to their half-assed characterizations (which they don’t: Jeff’s intelligence and familiarity with Potter lore rise and fall constantly according to the needs of whatever weak bit they’re doing at the moment), the clichéd, draggy interpersonal drama would be a stupid distraction. Nobody is in that theater because they care about Dan and Jeff.
The shallow production rarely engages with the text. It’s less about the books than about finding a way to make your average bro humor G-rated. In fact, I suspect one could have written 80 or 90 percent of the script having only seen the movie previews. It’s as if Dan and Jeff either don’t know the books all that well themselves or want to make the play accessible to those who don’t know the books all that well, and what is the point of that? This whole project is inherently nerdy. It will never not be nerdy. Embrace the nerdiness!
Mulling this over, I recalled how years ago, some friends introduced Sean and me to their favorite novelty band, a library-touring group called Harry and the Potters. I tracked down the band’s website, and the music is just as unabashedly goofy as I remembered, featuring song titles like “Hermione’s Birds and Boys,” “Never Going to the Bathroom Again,” “The Godfather Part II,” “Maybe Kreacher Will Bring Me a Sandwich,” and “The Economics of the Wizarding World Don’t Make Sense” (heh). Nobody with a merely casual acquaintance with the Harry Potter books is going to be interested in that arcane nonsense, but that’s exactly why it’s so endearing to those know the books intimately. True, joyful nerdiness revels in arcane details. Shallow nerdiness like Potted Potter isn’t cool; it’s pitiful and dorky, and face it: nobody likes that.