Jon Steiger (L), Julian Rozzell, Jr. (R) and the San Francisco cast of ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.’ (Photo: Matthew Murphy)
By Jim Gladstone
Yet Another Chapter
In which Death Eaters meet Day Eaters…
The former are dark-hearted followers of Lord Voldemort, uber-villain of the Wizarding World. The latter are the hungry theatergoers sitting through four acts and 8 ½ hours of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, now playing an open-ended run at the Curran Theater in its first North American production since opening on Broadway last year. On most Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, they’re performed in two sittings separated by a dinner break to experience this latest expansion of the Potterverse. That’s comparable in time (and ticket price) to a day at Disneyland (On Thursdays and Fridays, you can see the show split over two nights, but that’s sub-optimal; it’s built for binge-watching).
Handsomely mounted and certainly diverting, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a long walk on a thin line between imagination and machination. Ardent fans of J.K. Rowling’s book series (and the movies it inspired) will have no complaints about the deeply thought-through script (by Jack Thorne, based on a plot co-created with Rowling and director John Tiffany), which seamlessly dovetails with the elaborate and complex details of its forebears, even working in a few gasp-inducing Easter Eggs for Loyalists that don’t confuse matters for relative newbies.
The production value, for the most part, is superb: Christine Jones’ gliding set pieces and the ever-shifting gloam of Neil Austin’s rich, atmospheric lighting carve out dozens of distinctive locations within the space of the Curran stage; and thanks to Katrina Lindsay’s sweeping caped costumes and Stephen Hoggett’s minutely graceful choreography, the ensemble of more than two dozen moves with Swiss watch precision. There are terrific individual performances, too, most notably Jon Steiger as a lovably uneasy Scorpius Malfoy; and David Abeles, whose prankster, grown-up Ron Weasley feels genetically identical to the child in the books.
Yet despite all this well-oiled and genuinely admirable craftsmanship, there’s a deathly hollow at the center of it all, an overarching sense that the production is not a natural outgrowth of the landmark book series that, among other positive effects, inspired millions of kids and adults to discover or rediscover the pleasures of leisure reading. Instead, it feels like a forced bloom, teased from the seed of the final book’s epilogue a dozen years after it was published. Rowling’s legions of fans have no good reason to refute her word that the original books were envisioned as an epic multi-volume series, or to begrudge her the fortune and film adaptations with which her creativity was rewarded. Once upon a time, J.K. Rowling felt artistically compelled to build a world. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child builds on a brand.
In the final passages of the last Potter novel, Rowling offers a lovely closure that echoes of her series’ beginnings. After dozens of episodic adventures full of setbacks and reversals, the book jumps forward in time to show us an adult Harry Potter sending his son, Albus, off to Hogwarts; it also sends readers who have grown up with Harry Potter off to have their own adventures. This is a grand feat of literary magic: a simultaneous fusion and separation of fantasy and real life.
More of an excess than a necessity, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child blows off that graceful closure to dive back into the giddy thrill of episodic adventures and reassert familiar themes of love, death, friendship and filial angst. It’s entertaining but extraneous; polished fan-fiction by the most talented fans imaginable.
There’s magic to be found within the world of Harry Potter, and even within this show. But like scarfing down one more tempting handful of Bertie Bott’s Beans after being sated, a long day with the “Cursed Child” may leave you feeling a bit greedy and disenchanted.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
445 Geary Street, San Francisco
Jim Gladstone is a freelance writer and creative consultant based in San Francisco.