05/16/2014 02:38 pm ET | Updated Jul 16, 2014

First Nighter: Under My Skin Doesn't Get Below the Surface

Usually the devil gets the best lines, but since there's no devil in Under My Skin, the comedy (?) by Robert Sternin and Prudence Fraser at the Little Shubert, it's the angel (charismatic Dierdre Friel), who cracks the funniest.

She spouts one about Steve Jobs that's an honest-to-goodness laugh-getter, but beyond that and a few others, as Friel cavorts in a glitzed-up white work uniform by costumer Lara de Bruijn, even Angel is hard pressed to keep the customers entertained during this lame-brained affair.

Angel is on hand as a Grim Reaper subordinate, who's messed up. When Harrison Badish III (Matt Walton, working very hard) and Melody Dent (Kerry Butler, also working very hard) fall 14 stories in an office-building elevator accident, Angel inadvertently claims them as dead, which they aren't. They jumped up a few feet just before the elevator car hit bottom and therefore saved themselves.

Or some such thing. Physics, you know.

The plot hitch is that in resurrecting Harrison and Melody, Angel puts them in each other's body and can't immediately undo her my-bad. Which is a good thing for Sternin and Fraser, because then they have reason to follow Harrison and Melody as they're forced to live each other's life for the next few weeks.

Harrison Badish, as the surname implies, is bad-ish. He has a narrow businessman's bottom-line view of Amalgamated Healthcare, where he's CEO. He has no time for differing opinions on how the company should be run, especially from underlings several echelons down. Melody is one of the unfortunates, a temp worker in need of full-time employment and benefits that will help in supporting her rebellious daughter Casey (Allison Strong) and bombastic, dementia-incipient grandfather Poppa Sam (Edward James Hyland).

For a while, the playwrights attempt to derive amusement from, among other lame sequences, Melody's dealing with erections while in bed with Harrison's sort-of-fiancée Victoria (Kate Loprest) and Harrison's coming to terms with Casey-Poppa Sam-related household stress. But in time, Sternin and Fraser feel obliged to raise their stakes from mere sex comedy by having Harrison in Melody's body diagnosed with a slow-growing cancer requiring immediate surgery. That introduces the serious possibility of an actual death to one -- well, parts of two -- of the focal figures.

By now, astute readers will have figured out that this is one of those walk-a-mile-in-someone-else's-shoes undertakings, though Harrison is condemned to walk more than a mile in stiletto heels. By the conclusion, when and if the two have been fully restored -- no spoilers here, but why don't you guess? -- they will have learned something for their out-of-body-into-another-body experience and will be the better for it and also drawn closer together. One of them might even get to say that "offering better health care than the other guy is good for business."

But while Under My Skin is another of those type scenarios -- not to mention vaguely reminiscent of Some Like It Hot -- it's not a particularly appealing one. To some extent, it's the opposite. Sternin and Fraser begin the opus with a typical day at Healthcare Amalgamated. What they depict is Harrison remaining oblivious in his retrograde view of running a profits-first-last-and-always corporation to what's going on around him.

What's going on runs to the women in the office shamelessly throwing themselves at Harrison, because he's so rich and handsome. The most blatant is Melody's best friend, Nanette (Megan Sikora), who takes every opportunity to thrust her chest at Harrison and bend over for him to look at her from the rear in a dress so tight it looks as if it's shellacked on.

At one point, Harrison says something about "sexual harassment," but he's not the one in for a harassment comeuppance, as for a few seconds he looks to be. He's the one being sexually harassed. The situation is one that most men and woman today -- certainly women -- will find offensive after decades of working at changing men-women sexual politics in the office. (Mad Men never looked like this.) A spectator can be forgiven for wondering why director Kirsten Sanderson does everything she can to exaggerate the behavior.

Where have Sternin and Fraser been all these years? Something else they don't seem to be aware of as they go on about mooting health care is the Affordable Care Act. Nowhere does it or its sobriquet, Obamacare, enter into anyone's discussion -- not in the Amalgamated Healthcare office or in the doctor's offices or hospitals where many scenes take place. Perhaps the writers didn't want to weight the play unduly by introducing prickly headlines.

Here's one answer to the where-have-Sternin-and-Fraser-been-all-these-years query: They've been in television. According to the program bio, they've been entrenched in writing situation comedies and have turned out more than 300 episodes of series like Who's the Boss? and The Nanny, which they developed.

Now they manufacture a situation comedy for the stage -- Under My Skin was produced initially at the Pasadena Playhouse -- that has all the earmarks of something they hope will legitimize them more than they may have been while toiling at their form of weekly exposure.

If that's the case, they haven't succeeded.