Written by Robert K. Benson
Directed by Stephen Kaliski
In 1931, an ambitious, Irish-born woman named Mary Shanley took the bold step of joining the mostly male NYPD. In a career spanning over two decades, Shanley racked up over 1000 arrests and became one of the few women of the time to attain the rank of detective first grade. Her exploits, covered admiringly by the local press, captured the imagination of a public hungry for heroes. A kind of urban Annie Oakley, her pistol-packin’ image represented the can-do character of American womanhood. Doubtless her example inspired generations of women to pursue careers in law enforcement. But few people learned much about the woman behind the iconic photos. With mixed success, playwright Robert K. Benson and performer Rachel McPhee attempt to paint a more multidimensional portrait of the woman New Yorkers came to know as Dead Shot Mary.
Growing up in a poverty-stricken immigrant family, young Mary seeks a path to a better life. In her neighborhood, it’s the coppers that get respect, and she becomes determined to join the force. The idea sounds farfetched at first, but by the time Mary comes of age, female police officers have begun to gain some traction. Sexism still prevails, but Mary believes – correctly – that given a chance she can prove herself as capable as her male counterparts. During months of training, she pines for the day she can proudly don a police uniform. Yet her first job involves putting on pretty clothes and blending in with the population. Though she initially chafes at the idea, she turns out to be a highly effective undercover cop. Pickpockets, department store shoplifters, phony parishioners who burgle donation plates, fortune tellers who bilk impressionable customers: all become the target of Mary’s ruthlessly efficient detective skills. Often she’s required to investigate nightclubs, which is just fine with Mary. Her appetite for both jazz and booze is considerable. Fame arrives when a newspaper photographer captures Mary’s eye-catching blend of fashion and formidability. Beneath a wide-brimmed hat the detective wears a give-no-quarter expression, and her gloved hand reaches into her dainty purse to clutch that essential accessory, a .38 revolver. Mary’s reputation grows as she receives a commendation from Mayor La Guardia and travels to London to apprehend international scam artists. But the officer’s life is not all glory. Mary’s binge-drinking worsens and she gets demoted when she brandishes her firearm in a pub. Eventually she gets back into the department’s good graces, but her twilight years are haunted by self-doubt.
McPhee handles the period accent skillfully and, with the aid of Peri Grabin Leong’s well-researched costumes, disappears into the part. Both commanding and likable, she carries the audience confidently through the ups and downs of Mary’s life. As a play, though, the production leaves a few too many questions unanswered. Shanley’s crime fighting exploits are compellingly recounted, but Benson and director Stephen Kaliski are less surefooted when it comes to the more personal aspects the narrative. To be fair, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of biographical information available, so a certain amount of guess work is par for the course. Still, a more affecting balance could be struck between Mary’s legend and her true identity. No one knows why she remained single all her life. She certainly wouldn’t have required a husband to support her, but what about the emotional dimension of relationships? Were there lovers? Was Mary gay, straight, or simply an independent soul who cherished her autonomy too much compromise it? The script introduces a few possible theories, but never lands solidly anywhere. This cloudiness might work if the story were told from an outsider’s perspective, but with Mary confessing in the first person, we end up more puzzled than moved by her penchant for rueful introspection. DEAD SHOT MARY has its heart in the right place, but its creators need to line up their targets more decisively.
DEAD SHOT MARY continues through October 15th at The Bridge Theatre 244 W 54th St, New York, NY 10019. Website http://deadshotmary.com/ Tickets: http://tix.smarttix.com/ Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?ControlState=1&SalesEventId=5796&DC=