By Robert K. Benson; Directed by Stephen Kaliski
Produced by R & R Productions
Off Off Broadway, Solo Show
Runs through 10.15.16
The Bridge Theatre at Shetler Studios, 244 West 54th Street
by Sarah Weber on 9.21.16
Rachel McPhee in Dead Shot Mary. Photo by Isaiah Tanenbaum.
BOTTOM LINE: The captivating and must-see life story of a New York hero you’ve never heard of.
Detective Mary Shanley was a New York celebrity in the 1930s. This pistol-waiving trailblazer made over 1,000 career arrests and became the fourth woman in history to make Detective First-Grade. Famous for her ability to single-handedly halt fleeing thieves in their tracks, the press adored "dead shot Mary." Yet you've never heard of her, right? Thankfully Robert K. Benson has pulled this lost legend out from the dark and written a charming introduction to her life in his one-woman play Dead Shot Mary.
Performed with finespun gusto by Rachel McPhee, we first meet Shanley while she's traveling. After a mere few minutes she's captivated the attention of her fellow travelers (and the audience) and regales them with tales of how she went from an average working class New Yorker to a household name. We're brought back to her modest Queens apartment where we watch Shanley simultaneously narrate her story and live out her day-to-day life. For example, she turns on the radio to listen to a boxing match, and eventually she trails off as the match intensifies, yelling to the air after every successful or unfortunate blow. On stage at all times is also her uniform, which she often regards fondly when thinking back to the good ol' days. But, as the press keeps putting their favorite "lady cop" (a phrase she resents) into the spotlight we watch Shanley struggle with her sense of identity: between her public and her private personas, which one is true? As Shanley puts it, "Who is Mary Shanley? Damned if I know." The confusion, loneliness, and alcoholism eventually take their toll on her, nearly costing her her career.
There are moments when Shanley feels a bit cartoon-ish, but McPhee's performance is so delightful minor faults are easy to forgive. Solo shows are exceptionally challenging; not only does the actor have to maintain the play's momentum and keep the audience's attention by herself, but she must do so for an hour or more. McPhee not only rises to this challenge, she gets it right in the bulls-eye. And she's studied the character so well that even small facial expressions or quirks add volumes of complex humanity. One of my favorite moments is when Shanley enters her apartment and catches herself in the mirror—we watch a gradual combination of shock, disgust, gross fascination, and "where has the time gone" creep up McPhee's face as the character realizes the "old" woman in the mirror is, in fact, her.
I also need to give a round of applause to Stephen Kaliski's direction. It's easy to fall into the trap of stagnant staging when working on a one-person show. Kaliski, however makes wonderful use of the stage and of Kyu Shin's set design—Kaliski has McPhee use every possible inch of that space, both matching and enhancing her physically dynamic performance.
Dead Shot Mary is a must-see for history buffs and gender studies experts alike. Benson offers a window into the life of a forgotten NYC hero, allowing us to witness both the strengths and shortcomings of a woman who left behind a gaping crack in the glass ceiling.
(Dead Shot Mary plays at the The Bridge Theatre at 244 West 54th Street through October 15, 2016. Remaining performances are Mondays at 8; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8; and Sundays at 3. Tickets are $35 and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212.868.4444. For more information visit deadshotmary.com.)
Dead Shot Mary is written by Robert K. Benson. Directed by Stephen Kaliski. Costume Design by Peri Grabin Leong. Sound Design by Adam Salberg. Scenic Design by Kyu Shin. Production Manager and Lighting Designer is Haejin Han. Production Assistant is Jorge Luis Figueroa.
The cast is Rachel McPhee.