On Broadway, a wizard at midlife, a writer on the hot seat, and a Genie who refuses to be bottled up
NEW YORK — By now, after being engulfed in Pottermania for more than two decades, you could be forgiven if you never want to hear the words “Harry Potter’’ again.
But you really ought to clear some room in your Potter-saturated consciousness and your theatergoing schedule for the wondrous “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,’’ a spellbinding sequel that conjures more than enough theatrical magic to chase away Harry fatigue in even the most jaundiced Muggle.
Although it’s constructed on the sturdy bones of the best-selling books and the blockbuster movies, “Cursed Child’’ builds and builds over the course of its two parts and five-plus hours at the Lyric Theatre to become a distinct, towering, and unforgettable achievement of its own. It’s one of the best arguments I can think of for a holiday trip to Broadway. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” which stars Daniel Radcliffe — who of course played Harry Potter in the movies — is among a host of others worth seeing.
In “Cursed Child,’’ Harry Potter, the erstwhile boy wizard, is now a middle-aged father, played by Jamie Parker, who is at odds with his rebellious teenage son, Albus (Sam Clemmett). Determined to prove himself and escape dad’s stifling legend, Albus embarks on an extremely perilous journey that could have unforeseen consequences for the history of the wizarding world.
His partner in this endeavor is Hogwarts classmate and fellow misfit Scorpius Malfoy (a scene-stealing Anthony Boyle), the son of Harry’s old nemesis Draco Malfoy. Meanwhile, Harry has the persistent, chilling sense that He Who Must Not Be Named — oh, let’s just call him Voldemort — might be preparing to return.
That’s it for plot summary, folks. On their way out of the Lyric Theatre, audiences for “Cursed Child’’ are given buttons that read #KeepTheSecrets — a no-spoiler request that will be honored here. What I can assure you of, though, is that “Cursed Child’’ represents the polar opposite of a cash-grab spinoff.
Much of the credit belongs to visionary director John Tiffany. First, in tandem with “Harry Potter’’ author J.K. Rowling and playwright Jack Thorne (who wrote the Tony-winning script), Tiffany helped concoct the intricately multilayered new story. Then, Tiffany brought that story to intensely kinetic, visually arresting life on the stage.
Crucially, he puts the astonishing spectacle of “Cursed Child’’ in the service of an emotionally rich, revelation-laden narrative of regret and redemption, estrangement and reconciliation. So while the stunts may give you goosebumps, it’s the intimacy of “Cursed Child’’ that will ultimately get under your skin, the way it sensitively explores what keeps parents and children apart and what brings them together — including, perhaps, a desire to set things right.
A day after seeing “Cursed Child,’’ still somewhat dazed by the experience, I caught “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ at Studio 54. A fast-moving and trenchant if flawed work based on a real episode, it features Radcliffe as Jim, an ultra-punctilious fact-checker drawn into a clash over storytelling, truth, and journalistic ethics after he discovers a series of inaccuracies and embellishments in an essay penned by John (Bobby Cannavale), a prima-donna writer for Emily, a magazine editor (Cherry Jones). She has a lot on the line and a tight print deadline for deciding whether to publish or not.
Even the title of “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ — written by Jeremy Kareken, David Murrell, and Gordon Farrell, and based on a book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal — suggests its timeliness in the “truthiness’’ era. After all, what is the lifespan of a fact nowadays, especially when we’re governed by a man who views facts as inconvenient and disposable?
That is also, broadly speaking, the attitude of Cannavale’s swaggering John. His essay is built on an all-too-real tragedy — the suicide of a 16-year-old boy who leaped from the observation deck of a Las Vegas hotel — but when Jim is assigned to fact-check the piece by Emily, he quickly finds error after error. When Jim brings this up with the author, John declares defiantly: “I am not interested in accuracy. I am interested in truth.’’
For “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ to support the thematic weight it’s aiming for, the play needs to persuade us that John’s distinction is something other than self-justifying balderdash. We need to at least consider the possibility that taking a certain amount of literary license will enable John to capture a deeper truth about the boy’s life. The play is not terribly convincing on that score, alas, and the pedestrian excerpts of John’s essay that we hear in “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ don’t fortify his case, either.
This is where the right cast can and does make a huge difference. The magnetic field generated by the play’s trio of talented stars is so strong that you’re likely to think about the problems with “The Lifespan of a Fact’’ only after the, um, fact. You might also find yourself thinking about the lifespan of Daniel Radcliffe’s career, which shapes up as a long and intriguing one, populated by multidimensional characters not named Harry Potter.
Elsewhere on Broadway you will find Christopher Demos-Brown’s jolting “American Son,’’ starring Kerry Washington, which forces audiences to consider the chillingly hard-to-escape reach of systemic racism when you’re a young black man in America, no matter how accomplished. Though I haven’t seen this production of “American Son’’ yet, the searing 2016 world premiere performance of the play at Pittsfield’s Barrington Stage Company remains burned in my memory.
Another emotionally potent experience is “Dear Evan Hansen,’’ a social-media-age musical that is draining and stirring in roughly equal measure. On the lighter side, if you missed the riotously funny “The Play That Goes Wrong,’’ closing Sunday at Boston’s Emerson Colonial Theatre, here’s your chance to store up some laughs for the long winter ahead by seeing the Broadway production, which is scheduled to close in January. Another good bet, especially for teenagers, is “Mean Girls,’’ the sharp-witted musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s film, with a clever book by Fey herself.
Lastly, if you’re looking for something kid-friendly, I can recommend “Aladdin’’ at the New Amsterdam Theatre — or, more precisely, I can recommend Major Attaway’s performance as Aladdin’s wish-fulfilling pal, the Genie. While “Aladdin’’ itself is a pretty by-the-numbers affair and Telly Leung cuts a pallid figure in the title role, Attaway’s full-throttle rendition of “Friend Like Me’’ is a showstopper that would make Robin Williams smile. So would the rambunctious spirit Attaway brings to the role in his Broadway debut. This is one Genie who can barely be contained by a stage, much less a lamp.