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Dead Shot Mary

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 15, 2016

Rachel McPhee
Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography

That's our Mary Shanley, impeccably dressed in the latest fashions, toting her stylish white purse, and hefting the police revolver that earned her the nickname that is the title of the bio-play Dead Shot Mary, now at the Bridge Theater at Shelter Studios.

The short (60 minutes) character study, written by Robert K. Benson and featuring a captivating performance by Rachel McPhee, relates the story of one of New York City's first female police detectives, portrayed here as a woman who both embraced her status as a lone-wolf outsider and endured bouts of self-doubt and loneliness that she tried to erase through strong drink.

The play takes place in the early 1960s as Mary is preparing to leave her home in Queens for retirement in Florida and is looking back over her 30-year career as a detective. She proudly shows us her scrap book with stories about her in newspapers and magazines, and the photos, including one with her and Mayor LaGuardia, that line the back wall of her modestly furnished but tidy apartment (nicely designed by Kyu Shin). She tells us she was only the fourth woman to make the rank of Detective First Grade, and that over the course of her career, she made over 1,000 arrests, mostly working undercover and using her ingenuity to identify potential criminals as she made the rounds of the city.

Despite her occasional moments in the limelight, more as an object of curiosity than anything else, Mary's life was pretty ordinary. As she tells us early on, "I wasn't trying to make any kinda statement. I'm no women's libber. I just wanted a job that paid well and had a bit of excitement." That excitement included lots of time spent in bars, where an out-of-control incident led to her being demoted in rank and almost got her fired.

Throughout the play, Mary comes off as proud of her accomplishments (she loves reenacting some of her big arrests), but feeling she has spent a lifetime on the outside, looking in on a world that never knew what to make of her. She was "always the freak at the zoo," hauled out whenever the police force was looking for publicity, and she had few female role models she could follow in her field. Instead, she modeled herself on male images from the movies, on characters played by the likes of Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney. She even occasionally mimics them for us, especially in a funny bit in which she acts out a film noir detective scene.

In many ways, Mary Shanley was just another poor working stiff, yet she represents so many women who spent their lives as misfits, lacking the expected accoutrements of husband and children and using their independence as a means of insulating themselves against censure. The playwright has done a splendid job of capturing her life, and Ms. McPhee's performance is spot-on, including the perfectly intoned New York City working class speech patterns and rhythms she uses.

Under Stephen Kaliski's direction, she is constantly in motion, taking us with her as she reenacts some of her exploits and even as she allows us to see her struggles with drinking and the incident that got her into so much trouble. The production benefits greatly, as well, from Peri Grabin Leong's costume design and Adam Salberg's sound design, which includes some wonderfully appropriate jazzy background music. All of the elements come together to paint a perfect portrait of this ordinary and yet remarkable woman.

Dead Shot Mary
Through October 15
The Bridge Theatre @ Shetler Studio, 244 West 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: SmartTix

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