At minimum, what is expected from a new romantic comedy is that it be both amusing and amorous. Under My Skin, a new play direct from a successful run at the Pasadena Playhouse, is neither. A body-swapping comedy combined with problems in the healthcare system might have been relevant, except that all it tells us is that the poor have worse coverage than the rich which should come as no surprise. Written by the husband and wife television team of Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser, the majority of the jokes weren’t fresh back in the vaudeville days and the over-the-top direction by Kirsten Sanderson undercuts what might have worked. The cast led by perky Kerry Butler and miscast Matt Walton work hard but to little effect.
The body-swapping comedy idea has often been used in Hollywood movies such as Turnabout, GoodbyeCharlie and Freaky Friday (filmed twice) where the transfer of one person to another is easier to bring off than on the stage. In Under My Skin, Staten Island single mother and part-time intern Melody Dent (Butler) works for male chauvinist millionaire Harrison Badish III (Walton), CEO and president of Amalgamated Healthcare. Talked into carrying Badish’s coffee for him in the bumpy elevator, Melody and Harrison are killed in a freak accident. However, an incompetent Angel shows up and tells them that it is mistake and that they are not due to pass over at this time. Unfortunately when she sends them back, they find themselves in each other’s bodies. Although they can’t stand each other, they have to help each other out until Angel can switch them back again: Melody needs advice running the company and dealing with Harrison’s fiancée Victoria while Badish needs to learn how to deal with Melody’s rebellious teenage daughter and senile grandfather.
However, that is not the only problem they have: Melody has been having recurring pelvic pains and has an appointment with a specialist that has taken three months to schedule. Not only can’t Melody let Harrison miss the chance to see the doctor, the pain seems to be getting worse. Dealing with the medical system with the lowest rung of medical coverage is an eye-opener for Harrison who has always had the best plan available. And to make matters worse, Melody’s best friend and fellow intern Nanette (Megan Sikora) refuses to believe that Melody is now Harrison and that Harrison is now Melody.
Aside from the lack of real humor in this sit-com premise, the biggest problem with Under My Skin is that Walton and Butler are completely unbelievable playing the opposite sex. Six foot two Walton with his hairy arms and legs looks totally ridiculous in a dress and high heels without any other aids such as wigs or makeup. Lara de Bruijn’s men’s suits for Butler look too big for her to be a convincing man. Why, we ask, does no one in the play notice the incongruousness of it all? There must be a solution to the body-swapping for the stage but this production has not found it. As result, Walton’s solution is to play Melody as if he is bored with his situation, while Butler’s initially charming perkiness becomes frenetic and hysterical, neither of which is funny. As this is a romantic comedy, it all ends happily with an ending not earned by the proceedings.
The humor tends to be of the fraternity house/sophomoric kind, jokes about butts and boners abounding. With her shrill Brooklynese accent and her extremely tight dresses, Sikora as Melody’s BFF Nanette who is continually flaunting herself and her attributes before Badish seems to be a throwback to an earlier time. Even Marilyn Monroe in her gold-digger roles was never this unsubtle. Aside from the cheerful and jaunty angel named Angel (also played with a Brooklynese accent by Dierdre Friel, carrying a clipboard and dressed in a white jumper with silver spangles) and the badass boss Badish, the gynecologist that both hero and heroine visit is named Dr. Hurtz, a joke as old as the hills or older. Among the rest of the cast, Kate Loprest as Harrison’s sexy rich girlfriend is yet another stereotype, while Edward James Hyland has the thankless role of Melody’s senile grandfather who is also supposed to be deaf and mishears almost everything that is said to him, a tiresome device which from his expression he seems to recognize.
While Sternin and Fraser have had a very successful career writing 300 episodes of such primetime television as Who’s The Boss? and The Nanny which were very funny, their shows have counted on actors with huge personalities and charisma to spare to fill the leading roles, which is in little evidence here. Under My Skin with its 20 scenes and endless set changes (designed by Stephen Dobay) is lame in the humor department and has nothing new to say about the healthcare system. Had director Kirsten Sanderson toned down the exaggerated acting style, some of the material might have worked. Played at this pitch, Under My Skin only seems tone deaf and many years behind the times.
Under My Skin (open run)
Little Shubert Theatre, 422 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission