"Heartland," which has dropped into the Century where I caught a Sunday preview (opening night was last night), is a shoddy little shocker that stumbles about for a couple of hours under the weight of a red herring large enough to feed the entire Agatha Christie mystery canon. The payoff, ending with a shotgun blast that momentarily set aflame a porch post at that performance, is dishonest and foolish enough to cause an audience to fire back.
In what bears all the earmarks of a vanity production, Kevin Heelan's melodrama takes place on the evening of a spring day on which eight people have been murdered separately and mysteriously in a small Midwestern town. The setting is the front porch of a shabby frame house inhabited by a night watchman and his disordered family consisting of a bedridden wife and a seemingly retarded teenage son.
For some reason (reasons are given, but seem like afterthoughts), the watchman Skeet, a lean, short-tempered and sadistic man, has a pal, a decent neighbor named Earl who, though not without misgivings, has joined Skeet in a nighttime shotgun vigil on the brightly-lit porch with its litter of beer cans. From this unlikely vantage point, Skeet hopes to spot the killer, who, he's convinced, is a townsfellow he dislikes.
The conversational flow Heelan has set up runs fairly smooth, and there are fleeting indications that he meant his play to be as much an indictment of the title society as an ordinary thriller. And he does keep us in suspense, however unfairly. But the production is superior to the material. J.C. Quinn has a nice mean look as Skeet; Sean Penn is nimble and scary as the misleadingly backward son; and Keith Jochim, the Monster makeup he wore for his one night out in "Frankenstein" all washed off, makes an engaging, convincingly efficient sheriff tired of Skeet's carryings-on. Larry Nicks, as the good neighbor, and Martha St. David, as the ailing wife who appears only at the finish, round out the cast.
Art Wolff has directed this inane stuff, obviously with scant enthusiasm, while Bill Ballou's scenery and lighting are expressive enough to have served a far better piece of work.
It is always a pleasure to meet, for the first time, a writer who undeniably has the authentic touch of the playwright. Just such a fellow wandered into sight at the Century Theater last night. The name is Kevin Heelan, he is apparently very young, and this marked his Broadway debut.
His play, Heartland, is strongly patterned and envisaged. Imagine. It is a small town in the Middle West - a sort of do-nothing day in late spring. Then suddenly, over the radio come accounts, first one and then another, of random killings in the area. Men on their porches are suddenly gunned down. An intruder shoots a man in his own living room. A homocidal maniac is at large.
The small town is supernaturally terrified, as almost every news bulletin brings in news of yet another neighbor slain. Senseless death is on a rampage. Two men, Earl, a rough, tough, unemployed security guard, and Skeet, a nervous but wryly amusing store manager, are drinking beer and cleaning their rifles on Earl's porch getting ready to defend themselves.
Earl has a brain-impaired son, James, but he too, to their surprise, shows he can handle a rifle almost with the expertise of a professional killer. It seems he has been secretly taking lessons. Why?
The play revolves around Earl - a macho fool, who adored his bullying, bull-whipping father, and today is rigid almost to the point of rigor mortis. His wife is so alienated that she simply stays in bed, and the boy, who was once, it seems, normal, now simply gives his father a calf-like mixture of love, admiration and fear. Particularly fear.
That is the situation Heelan contrives, and on this basis he offers us an honestly gripping psychological thriller. The secrets of closets (one quite literal) are slowly, teasingly revealed, the characters unfold slowly, as if formed by random details on a police blotter, and false scents are waved in front of us like rotten herrings in a fish market. But one scent is not false. Which?
Let me admit the play's ending is its weakest part - but then this is a common failing in the mystery melodrama genre. The explanation - always a touch too pat - is either the one we guessed, the one we didn't guess, or an unlikely one darting in from left field. Whichever it is, we are apt to feel cheated. Rather like the anti-climax of a successful conjuring trick, it is a disappointment that goes with the territory.
However, there is so much good solid craftsmanship here that I think we will be hearing more of Heelan in the future. Meanwhile this is a good old-fashioned play to be going on with, and it has been most effectively staged.
Art Wolff - whose major experience seems to be in television - has directed with just the right balance of tensed-up naturalism and heightened melodrama. Nothing is permitted to go over the top, but the play is simmering pleasantly, even excitingly, throughout.
The scenery and lighting by Bill Ballou - handsomely realistic - makes an ideal frame for play and performers both, and the entire cast is slightly exaggerated but entirely convincing.
Larry Nick's Earl, probably a basically decent man but now brutalized and puzzled, and J.C. Quinn as his humorous side-kick, are both admirable. Sean Penn carries off the disturbed boy with a properly strange gusto, Keith Jocum makes a marvelously solid and credible Sheriff, and Martyn St. David is appropriately waif-like as the wife.
You'll enjoy Heartland - it is a mayhem suspense drama with a touch of class and a great deal of character.
In Kevin Heelan's ''Heartland,'' which is playing at the Century Theater on Broadway, there is a homicidal maniac on the loose. Eight people have been slaughtered in a small Middle Western town, and everyone shudders at the slightest sound. Skeet, a crude, unemployed redneck and self-appointed vigilante, stands guard over his house with a rifle and several six-packs of beer, fortifying himself against the killer and against an oppressive thirst.
Could the villain be Tiny, the large, backward youth who palled around with Skeet's shy, stuttering teen-age son until the father accused him of unnatural acts? Other suspects include the son - a cringer who has privately learned how to handle a weapon - his insane mother; and of course Skeet himself. No one points a finger at the no-nonsense sheriff, but if we look closely at the jovial lawman, and check the program, we can recognize a familiar face, Keith Jochim, last seen on the New York stage baying his way into the moonlight. Frankenstein's monster has returned as a sheriff.
This hackneyed melodrama sets its tone in the first few minutes with talk about home and families being ''the heart of this heartland'' and about people having a ''heavy heart.'' The heaviest thing about ''Heartland'' is the burden of the actors and of the audience. Some of the cast members, including Mr. Jochim, have talent, but only rarely do they have a chance to demonstrate it on these portentous premises.
Saddled with the most cliched roles are J.C. Quinn and Sean Penn as father and son. The father spends most of the play snapping at his offspring to fetch him more beer, whisky and a clean shirt. The son, who mopes around the house like a sick gerbil, occasionally wails, ''Oh, aow, the closet!'', which freely translated means, ''Don't throw me in dat dere closet.''
The mystery within remains Skeet's secret, although late in the evening he goes to the closet and comes back outside snapping a long black bullwhip that would make Simon Legree twitch in envy. In a theatrical season that seems increasingly preoccupied with weaponry, this is the first whip of the year, and one can only imagine what other instruments of torture and objects of harassment are hidden in the dark behind the army boots and hunting jackets. Perhaps there is another play by Mr. Heelan.
At the preview I attended, in the final shootout, a blast from a rifle scorched a chunk of wood out of a post on Skeet's front porch, which must have given the set designer, Bill Ballou, a moment of alarm, unless this was an intentional ''special visual'' effect by Tom Brumberger. Mr. Brumberger is also responsible for the audio effects, which is a reference to a portable radio that plays country music and conveniently placed, plot-advancing news announcements about the mass murderer. Art Wolff's staging is serviceable. The back porch seems sturdy. It is only the play that creaks.