Fans of J.K. Rowling: Beware. Time and theatrical adaptation have done something terrible to our beloved Harry Potter. According to the new two-part play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, now at Broadway’s elegant but cavernous Lyric Theatre, middle age and a post at the Ministry of Magic have turned him into what can only be described as a less malevolent version of Cornelius Fudge. And since costume designer Katrina Lindsay has chosen to follow the movies by putting most people onstage into more or less Muggle-like clothing, we don’t even get the pleasure of seeing him in a pinstripe robe and lime-green bowler hat. Clearly, something went very wrong when Harry and his Hogwarts friends journeyed from the bookshelf to the stage. Maybe somebody’s been adulterating the floo powder.
Each half of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child runs a bit over two-and-a-half hours, with a twenty-minute intermission. That’s roughly four hours and 35 minutes of playing time. If you’re not a Potterite and have neither read the books nor seen the movie versions, you’ll probably have only the dimmest notion of what’s going on. If, like me, you’re a calm admirer of Rowling’s massive achievement — I’ve read four of the books with pleasure and am well briefed on what occurs in the last three — you may well wonder why a creative franchise that’s been so carefully guarded by its author should suddenly have resulted in this slackly structured, verbose, stylistically muddled, overwrought mishmash.
Conversely, if you’re a total Potter devotee, who began reading the books in childhood or early adolescence and devoured them as they appeared, you probably won’t mind. Apparently any little touch of Harry in the night is enough to enthrall you, and apparently there are enough of you to guarantee that the play’s two parts, with their two lofty ticket prices, will be selling out the Lyric for a great many months to come, no matter how I feel about it. Enough of you were there at the press performance I attended to send up a roaring laugh at the phrase “Crabbe and Goyle,” said in a not particularly funny context, and a gigantic groan of horror at the news that something terrible had happened to Neville Longbottom. I understood your reactions, but I felt for those among us who had no clue as to their meaning. I felt sad for the theater, an art that I think should welcome everyone and not merely send signals in code to those previously briefed. And I felt, too, that the situation wasn’t very good for Harry Potter, who will ultimately have to face a world in which entire generations have not grown up reading the books as they came out. This bumpy stage trip through his past and future will not encourage them to discover the genuine magic of his story.
The mature Harry of The Cursed Child, married to Ginny Weasley and serving as head of Magical Law Enforcement in the Ministry of Magic, has a son, Albus Severus Potter, whom at the drama’s start he is sending off to Hogwarts, via Platform Nine and Three-Quarters at Kings Cross. Unlike the young Harry, overjoyed to escape his Muggle aunt and uncle, Albus, having been raised in a wizarding household, turns out to hate Hogwarts, where his celebrated name is an intolerable burden and his only friend is Scorpius, the son of Harry’s schoolboy nemesis Draco Malfoy. Somehow the shared discontent of Albus and Scorpius gets tangled up with a late-night conversation Albus overhears between his father and Amos Diggory, now a wheelchair-bound widower. Amos has heard that the Ministry possesses a now-outlawed Time-Turner and wants to use it to bring back his heroic son Cedric. (If it’s been a while since you’ve read the books, the one to brush up on beforehand is Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.) Encouraged by a mysterious woman, Delphi, who says she’s old Diggory’s niece, Albus, and Scorpius raid the office of Harry’s boss — his old school friend Hermione Granger, now married to Ginny’s brother Ron — and find the Time-Turner, provoking two prolonged episodes in which, like so many fantasy heroes who’ve attempted to travel back and readjust the past, the boys find that even small changes to the past can have very nasty consequences in the present. They also discover that Delphi, who’s been driving their plan, is not at all what she seems. (Newsflash: You-Know-Who had a daughter.)
There’s a good deal more of this, as Scorpius struggles, first while deprived of Albus and then along with him, to get the past back on its track to the reassuring present. Interspersed are scenes of Harry, Ginny, Hermione, and Ron searching frantically for Albus and the missing Time-Turner; even Draco lends a hand. Matters come to a head — as some of you may have guessed — back at the traumatic moment, constantly recurring in Harry’s thoughts, when his parents died protecting him from the Dark Lord. As a result, when wizarding normality returns, Harry and Albus learn to get along better.
Anyone who’s studied the B-movie franchises of the Thirties and Forties, from Nancy Drew to Flash Gordon, would have known how to turn this material into a tidy, entertaining play — or pair of plays, if you insist on double profits — that could have charmed and diverted diehard Potterites along with the less informed and the less dedicated among us. How playwright Jack Thorne and director John Tiffany, who co-constructed the work’s scenario with Rowling, should have ended up with something so sprawling and needlessly wordy is a complete puzzle. (I don’t know Thorne’s previous work, but Tiffany, whose achievements include the excellent stage musical of Once, has never shown such a slack hand at focus.) Apart from being opaque to newcomers, the script makes elaborate forays into flashbacks that seem included purely to rouse Potter-fan sentiment, like Hagrid’s arrival at the Dursleys’s retreat when Harry turns eleven. A great many figures from the books seem to turn up largely for auld lang syne (was that Bane the centaur I glimpsed for a moment?), and the dialogue, often weighed down by the soggily earnest tone of after-school specials, seems to drag on too long in nearly every scene.
Partly, it drags because — another disappointment from the usually resourceful Tiffany — a great deal of the acting is shrill and overdone. A number of actors, unfortunately including Anthony Boyle, the young newcomer who plays Scorpius, mistakenly equate characterization with creating a funny voice and exaggerating it in moments of stress. Others, mercifully, do better: Sam Clemmett (Albus), Jamie Parker (Harry), and Noma Dumezweni (Hermione) fill their major roles capably, for the most part dodging the high-pressure frenzy Tiffany seems to have wished on the production as a whole.
Part of that frenzy comes in what feels like an excessive insistence on spectacle. Choreographer Steven Hoggett, who’s done impressive work when teamed with Tiffany in the past, fills what seem to be needless between-scenes interludes with lines of people scurrying by in opposite directions for no particular reason, to the accompaniment of not particularly interesting music by Imogen Heap. Inevitably a great deal of scenery (by Christine Jones) is deployed. Like Lindsay’s costumes, it all suits the action well; the trouble is in the script’s structure, not the designers’ execution of its demands.
Inevitably, too, a Harry Potter play must contain a good many magical effects, and here a good deal of care has been taken. The transfigurations — characters turning themselves into someone else — are marvelously managed. Broomsticks fly; characters levitate; flames flare up from nowhere; books dance themselves open. When the Death Eaters briefly prevail in one alternative reality, giant sheets of gray ectoplasm circle the upper reaches of the auditorium. Jamie Harrison (“Illusions and Magic”) and Jeremy Chernick (“Special Effects”), along with their large crew of associates and assistants, can be thoroughly proud of their work. If the rest of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child were as carefully built and precisely timed as its effects, the show would cast a genuinely bewitching (or should I say bewizarding?) spell. As it stands, its effect more closely resembles a pack of Bertie Botts’s Every Flavor Beans — in which, too often, you draw the wrong flavor.