The Magnus Effect, I gleaned from a quick Wikipedia search, is “the commonly observed effect in which a spinning ball (or cylinder) curves away from its principal flight path,” which explains deviations from the expected trajectories of spinning sports balls. I wonder how I missed that in high school physics, but fortunately for us, playwright and actor Hannah Van Sciver was paying attention. The Magnus Effect is her smartly written, often funny, utterly genuine and charming world premiere play, produced by the Greenfield Collective, about five misfits trying to overcome their fear of flying.
Unpredictable trajectories collide entertainingly when four wary loners respond to an ad for a paid anxiety study run by Zoe Richard’s effusive Hedda. This likable cast — directed with insight and compassion by David O’Connor — play believably troubled, damaged people. Amanda Jill Robinson is Amy, obsessed with numbers; Richard Chan’s Randal is a germaphobe; David Pica’s Drake has anger issues; and Van Sciver’s Sasha doesn’t trust people. All are freaked out by the prospect of flight, which Hedda promises they will do together after five sessions.
O’Connor stages the Fringe-length (65-minute) play with a robust intimacy in Vox Populi’s third-floor studio. Sara Outing’s simple square set, with audience on three sides, puts us in the rooms with the characters, who take turns hosting the group’s weekly meetings. Each character’s distinctive and unusual behaviors — Chan’s use of sanitary wipes, Pica’s self-calming efforts, everyone’s reliance on their smartphones — are expressed in revealing detail. Even scene changes, inventively and quickly staged to Chan’s original music, provide fascinating character details.
This low-budget production is sharply produced, with Outing’s design work complimented by Noah Lee’s lighting, Grayce Hoffman’s costumes, and Sarah Van Sciver’s sound. The Greenfield Collective supplies all the amenities a small company in a simple space can, and more, including portable air conditions and fans, free cold water and other drinks at bargain prices.
Moreover, each performance features an informal preshow treat. When I saw The Magnus Effect, Rowan Hepps Keeney performed a harrowing monologue about sexual harassment, and Corinna Burns read from her solo piece “Internet Stalker.” Plan to arrive by 7:40 for whatever treat Van Sciver has lined up!
Rather than being some sort of touchy-feely celebration of talk therapy, The Magnus Effect is tightly plotted with several thrilling twists and surprises, and a satisfyingly complex and brave ending that feels real. Overcoming anxiety and other social disorders, we learn, isn’t easy, especially when people don’t tell the truth, or use social media to probe others’ secrets. But sometimes our unpredictable trajectories can propel us in the right direction.
What, When, Where
The Magnus Effect. By Hannah Van Sciver, David O'Connor directed. Through July 24, 2016 at Vox Populi, 391 N. 11th Street, Philadelphia. thegreenfieldcollective.com.