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Under My Skin

The Nanny TV writers Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser critique the American health care system with thick accents and sexual innuendos.

Matt Walton costars as Harrison Badish III with Kerry Butler as Melody Dent in Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser's Under My Skin, directed by Kirsten Sanderson, at the Little Shubert Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Move the flashy girl from Flushing to Staten Island, throw in a twist of Freaky Friday, and you've got Under My Skin, sitcom veterans Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser's new comedy now running off-Broadway at the Little Shubert Theatre. Sternin and Fraser, best known for writing Fran Fine the saucy quips that captured Mr. Sheffield's heart in The Nanny, have returned to their original home in the theater, though with the same brash television sensibilities that captivated audiences for six seasons. Devout fans, however, will be disillusioned to see what happens to the pair's signature brand of overwritten humor under harsh proscenium lighting. Without the luxury of a laugh track to keep the show pumped full of oxygen, the show's comic life precariously flickers like a candle constantly on the verge of being permanently snuffed out.

The always-charming Kerry Butler revives her Little Shop Skid Row dialect for the role of Staten Islander Melody Dent, an altruistic single mother who gave up a scholarship to business school to take care of her ailing grandfather (the adorably crotchety Edward James Hyland) and angst-ridden teenage daughter Casey (a pubescently cynical Allison Strong). We might as well be watching Fran and Val yuck it up over a quick nosh in the Sheffield kitchen as Melody and her brassy, big-haired bestie Nanette (played by the admirably immodest Megan Sikora) kvetch over their underemployment as part-time workers at Amalgamated Healthcare — a company ruled under the money-lusting thumb of CEO Harrison Badish III (a perfectly slick Matt Walton).

A fateful attempt to make herself known to the big boss lands Melody and Harrison (reminiscently referred to as "Mista Badish" throughout) in a plummeting elevator, sending the pair prematurely to the pearly gates manned by an angel, fittingly named Angel (the hilarious Dierdre Friel, who serves as the show's primary comic resuscitator). A mix-up in the department of "Eternal Affairs" gives the two of them a fortunate second chance at life, though. When they return to Earth, they find themselves on the receiving end of God's sense of humor, having traded bodies and bank accounts.

Rather than the conventional vehicle for body-switching comedies, Sternin and Fraser have opted for a swap of clothing rather than personality, allowing Butler and Walton to stick with sight gags (courtesy of costume designer Lara de Bruijn) and keep the male/female imitations to a minimum. Melody has the opportunity to discover the glories of the male form with Harrison's fiancée, Victoria (an uncomfortable scene between Butler and Kate Loprest where laughing and cringing are equally viable options), while Harrison gets the chance to experience female camaraderie in a night out on the town with Nanette.

Butler and Walton do what they can to add a pinch of subtlety to the barrage of heavy-handed humor, directed with an equally heavy hand by Kirsten Sanderson. The laughs, however, fluctuate in unpredictable waves, exposing the play's firmly structured sitcom skeleton with strategically placed pauses after each quippy remark, many of which remain unnervingly empty. Stephen Dobay's set design does the job, re-creating a particularly impressive elevator crash, though the Little Shubert's large stage often swallows up the scenic elements, which are clunkily dragged on and off stage in between scenes.

While the hilarity of Melody and Harrison's body swap ensues, timely grievances about today's health care system are earnestly incorporated. What Melody thinks are just severe monthly cramps, which Harrison has the good fortune of experiencing this month, turn out to be a more serious health issue. A trip to the gynecologist (one of the play's funnier gags) leads the elitist Harrison to a deeper understanding about the heartless industry through which he has made his fortune.

The subject matter was inspired by the experiences of Sternin and Fraser's former leading lady, Fran Drescher, who was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2000. Though undoubtedly a commendable project, rather than weaving their social commentary into the comedy, the writers have choppily inserted what comes across as a public service announcement into their staged sitcom. The doctor visit becomes an unabashed bemoaning of pricey diagnostic testing and the generally unnavigable nature of the industry, inducing a fair share of eye-rolling in reaction to issues and opinions about which this particular audience, in a different setting, is likely to have strong feelings.

After all is said and done, the erratic plot circles back into a traditional love story, the neatly packaged conclusion of which the production is wholly (and amusingly) self-aware. Though we may not share in our protagonists' profound spiritual transformation, we are left with the tired, though forever resonant old adage, "You never truly know someone until you've walked a mile in her uterus."

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