Hickman is blessed with impeccable comic instincts, which she devotes generously to her characters. Their lives and stories take precedence here, and as a result, there are no cheap laughs and no gratuitous punch lines. Each of them -- two women and a teen-age girl -- is well-intentioned and doing the best she can in a difficult and complicated world. Hickman understands the way desire, when foiled by reality, can set events spinning out of control, and how desperately funny that can be.
For instance, "The Ballad of the Good Helper" takes us on a nightmare job interview in which the seeker's angst depresses the prospective employer and manages to make the proceedings life-threatening. Clearly the would-be employee is at the end of her rope. (She offers scholarly papers on agricultural trends for what we intuitively understand is a rote job in food service.) She doesn't want to sound "unhumble" -- a perfect Hickmanesque word choice that raises the specter of humility and then turns it on its ear -- but she is, she tells us, vastly overqualified for every job she's sought in the past year. We believe her. She's so bright, her mind leaps from topic to topic faster than she can control it. She's a bundle of underused talent just bursting to find an outlet, but her anxiety is alarming and we find ourselves laughing uneasily and sympathizing with the hapless would-be employer.
In "Denise Takes a Spill," an overachieving high school student with a speech impediment and a crush on her English teacher manages to create havoc at the school science fair. But Denise is no ordinary nerd; she is sweet and perceptive and forgiving. On the subject of Mr. Granger, a like-minded geek whom some of the students mock, she says, "I think he's, like, sad in some ways. ... I'm more positive." And indeed she is, participating in clubs and pulling down all A's while struggling at home with a divorced mother and a younger brother who can't see the point of even trying. But while Hickman evokes pathos, there is nothing pathetic about Denise. She possesses a sturdiness of spirit that makes her a delight.
In "The Miracle of Life" (the weakest of the three), a sex-education teacher dispenses conventional and unconventional advice on life (yes), love (maybe), and dieting (no, no, no!) to her giggling and self-conscious students. Miss Wagner is clearly devoted to her kids and aches for them to learn from her mistakes, which she relates as transparent lessons passed on by "a friend."
What makes this show work so well is Hickman's clarity of dramatic intent. She knows, pure and simple, what each of her characters wants, and she lets them go for broke. In this endeavor she is ably supported by Sheila Balter's crisp direction and smooth staging, which in turn get a boost from Jeff Rowlings' beautiful lighting and set design (enhanced by the paintings of scenic artist Stanley Goldstein), and the really cool meteor sound design provided by Kerry Rose.
Tony Morewood is the would-be American, and his "How to" is less a primer than a lecture in social history interspersed with some intriguing personal stories. He's a genial Englishman whose wild Don King hairdo and lanky, stocking-footed form evoke Sesame Street's Big Bird (or his human namesake, Larry Bird). Very few solo artists try to sustain a monologue for two acts, and Morewood's unsuccessful attempt reveals a certain naivete, which comes as a bit of a shock considering his professional credentials: A well-known British comedian and television actor, he walked away from a flourishing career to pursue a lifelong desire to come to the States.
Morewood's American dream began in his home city of Manchester with weekly childhood trips to Woolworth's. There he would linger at the "Pick and Mix" candy counter, which he dubs the perfect metaphor for America: "You pick out all the pieces of the culture you do want, discard all the pieces you don't want, and then you have to pay for it." We hear of his longed-for cowboy outfit, and the memorable Christmas when what he got was better than what he'd asked for. We are with him as a 10-year-old when he meets his first American -- confident, healthy Jake, whose robust good looks distinguish him from Morewood's grammar school classmates like "an Arnold Schwarzenegger at a rickets convention."
That we begin to see our own country in a different light is not lost on Morewood. Indeed, that seems to be his point. Or one of them. Unfortunately, he hasn't settled on a unifying format, so the show meanders between its identities as either a straightforward memoir or a stand-up routine on the differences between Americans and the English.
When autobiographical monologues are moving, it's because the artist transcends the personal and makes his or her experience universal. Morewood has the most success in this regard with the "Jake" sequence when, after blissful days spent playing (unsupervised) in the local four-star hotel, the tables are turned and the rich American boy comes to the Morewoods' row house in Manchester. Jake is clearly surprised by how little the family has in the way of material goods, and the young Tony interprets this as disdain. Yet when it's time for Jake to leave, he betrays his loneliness by clinging to Tony's mother.
The second-act resumption of personal history is considerably less compelling. Here, unpleasant encounters with U.S. Immigration are reduced to abstractions -- interviews for a green card are characterized as torture, complete with blindfold. While we may sympathize, Morewood seems to be pouting, which robs him of perspective and humor. (OK, it was tough, but it's not as though he landed in a detention camp after arriving in a leaky boat.)
His observations about English and American cultural differences are funny and right on the mark, but they reconfigure the evening as a very long stand-up routine that ultimately undermines whatever theatrical punch it might have. And however entertaining his stories, they do not justify the length of this show in its present form.
Meteor Girl runs through Aug. 20 at 450 Geary Studio Theatre in S.F.; call 346-7671. How to Become an American runs through Aug. 26 at the Marsh in S.F.; call 826-5750.