ERNIE: THE LIFE AND CAREER OF ERNIE KOVACS, RKO Productions, at the Heartland Studio Theater. Ernie Kovacs was one of those infuriating, paradoxical, brilliant performers whose life story virtually cries out to be told. A workaholic, perfectionist, and natural-born comedian, Kovacs was one of the first to realize TV was more than just vaudeville in a box or radio with pictures, as tapes of his still-hilarious TV specials from the early 60s attest. But his personal life was a shambles. His first marriage ended in divorce and disaster–Kovacs gained custody of his two daughters, but his wife kidnapped them soon after and he never saw them again. And when Kovacs died in a car crash, in 1962, his second wife, Edie Adams, discovered they owed a fortune to the IRS.

Somehow, none of the drama comes across in Michael Bratta’s play. He’d rather tell us the facts than show us–always a mistake–and when he does stage a scene from Kovacs’s life, as when Kovacs meets his first wife, he handles the moment with so little finesse you’d think he was writing for a high school talent show instead of professional theater.

It doesn’t help that Bratta himself plays Kovacs. With his black hair, silly mustache, and huge Freudian cigar he looks a bit like Kovacs, but his droning, one-note delivery makes even the most interesting material dull. And Bratta is the best performer in the show. But most painful of all is watching the cast, misdirected by Reid Ostrowski, kill excerpts from Kovacs’s best material.

–Jack Helbig