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Theatre in Review: Dead Shot Mary (Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios)

Rachel McPhee. Photo: Isaiah Tanenbaum Theatrical Photography.

Robert K. Benson unearths a fascinating slice of New York City history in Dead Shot Mary, and it's a pity that he doesn't do something more interesting with it. The protagonist of this solo show is Mary Shanley, who was the fourth woman to be ranked a first grade detective in the city's police department. Her nickname, cited in the play's title, alluded to her easy way with a handgun. She was rather famously photographed for the Daily News, dressed in a nice frock (and hat and gloves), a purse in one hand and a pistol in the other. The idea of a lady packing heat (as Humphrey Bogart might say) was enough to make her a demi-celebrity at the time -- although, as Benson suggests, such public relations shenanigans didn't endear her to her already-bemused male colleagues.

In fact, isolation is more or less the theme of Dead Shot Mary, which basically positions her as kind of Norma Desmond of the law enforcement set -- alone at home with her beloved dog, Jiggsy, having one (or three) drinks too many, and looking back on her glory days. Raised to be a conventional Irish Catholic young lady, she worked as a switchboard operator until joining the NYPD in 1931. Dressed nicely, she was deployed in various public spaces, such as churches and cinemas, where she sussed out pickpockets and "seat-tippers," who stole purses and other valuables from the unsuspecting.

Mary racked up a thousand career arrests, but, as presented here, she seems to have lived a profoundly solitary life. Aside from Jiggsy, the script never alludes to a single friend or romantic partner. (A passage that describes her deep fascination with Billie Holiday had me wondering if she might have been a closeted lesbian, but, if so, the idea isn't developed any further.) Benson depicts Mary looking back on her life, wondering how it all went by so fast and facing a lingering regret that she didn't choose the more conventional roles of wife and mother. She is strikingly ambivalent about the Catholic Church, even in a sequence set in the confessional, where she reviews her sorrows, only to add, "Even God's a man, another one sittin' there [and] passin' judgment on me...So many people told me I wanted to be a man and in my mind I guess that's what I was copying."

The idea of Shanley as a feminist pioneer who pays the price for independence would have gotten more traction if she were a more compelling character. Benson's portrait tends toward the maudlin, putting Mary half in the bag, mooning over her loneliness and making too much of a fuss over Jiggsy. Aside from one moderately interesting passage, describing the nabbing of a purse-snatcher in a church while the priest informs the ladies of the congregation that "Catholic marriage is your only salvation," Mary's job seems as routine as any secretarial position.

Rachel McPhee does her level best to endow Mary with plenty of New York attitude in a performance that, under the direction of Stephen Kaliski, may be scaled a little too broadly for the theatre's tiny footprint. Still, working within the confines of the script, she goes a long way toward suggesting Mary's maverick nature and the immense sadness behind the cheerfully feisty face she presents to the world. The design credits are modest but solid enough for the purposes of this production, including Kyu Shin's set, dominated by a collage of empty picture frames; Peri Grabin Leong's costume, which faithfully recreates Mary's look in that purse-and-gun photo; Haejin Han's lighting; and Adam Salberg's sound design, which features a playlist of period tunes, including, most appropriately, "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition."

Still, Dead Shot Mary aims and misses the mark; whatever fascination Mary Shanley in her day held for the public is not visible on stage at the Bridge Theatre. -- David Barbour

(19 September 2016)

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