First, Noel

On the face of actress Lynn Blackburn are all the reasons you need to see Hay Fever, Theatre Britain's production now running--no, galloping at full gait--on the stage at Trinity River Arts Center. First, there's Blackburn's nose, a proud little thing twitching pertly like Samantha Stevens' or turning down slightly to express disgust, as if it's just received an unwelcome whiff of old mutton stew. Then that mouth, drawn into a shiny crimson bow any Christmas box would beg for. Under a dense thatch of auburn bangs, Blackburn's enormous eyes flare and flash, doubling her body weight with thick mascara.

This face, this marvelous face, makes perfect sense in Noel Coward's 1925 comedy of bad manners among the society set. As predatory actress Myra Arundel, Blackburn slinks and slithers like a Jazz Age cobra, striking poses in her clingy flapper gown, an Erte figurine in the flesh. But she's not just a pretty face and figure, this girl. Blackburn turns out to be a crackerjack comedian with the timing skills of a vaudeville vet. "You look well, Judith," she purrs to the retired actress whose country home she's visiting. "Rrrrrusticating obviously agrees with you."

Blackburn, in her first role with Theatre Britain, may be the big find of the spring theater season so far--she wasn't nearly so memorable as the ingenue in last year's Noises Off at WaterTower Theatre--but in Hay Fever she's a standout in a cast of women so good at the difficult craft of being funny (and with crisp British accents yet) that the men onstage seem to shrink to half their size.

Elly Lindsay, as Judith Bliss, the middle-aged stage diva mooing about her boring new life in the sticks, looks like an older Emily Watson (the quirky actress from Breaking the Waves and Punch-Drunk Love). She spectacularly overacts (on purpose), flirting like crazy with a younger man (David Wilson-Brown) she's lured into the house for a secret tryst. When she says, "I am beautiful and sad," she's about as fragile as an anvil.

As Sorel, Judith's daughter, Jennifer Knight giggles and pouts like a princess in pain, as if the accordion pleats in her tennis skirt were squeezing things they oughtn't. (If only she weren't wearing a platinum wig two sizes too big.)

And Kudos candy bars to director Robin Armstrong for finding Francesca Olson. New to Theatre Britain (and to Dallas stages), she's another one-of-a-kind actress to watch. As the addled visitor Miss Coryton, she's a pleasingly plump Paris Hilton, squeaking lines in a breathy stammer made even funnier by Blackburn's spot-on impression of her in Act 3. If Olson suddenly said, "That's haaaaaht," it would bring down the house.

Yes, it's a yummy bunch. And the way they nibble at Coward's tasty word-snacks, golly. Says Judith of Myra: "She goes about using sex as a sort of...shrimping net." And Myra, of the whole Bliss brood: "This house is a complete featherbed of false emotions! You're artificial to the point of lyoo-nacy!"

And that is Coward's point. He loved to make the uppity-pups look the fool. The Blisses--mother Judith; father David, a novelist (Bob Wasinger); son Simon (John De Los Santos); daughter Sorel--are as fruity as compote but only a fraction as sweet. Each has invited a love interest down for the weekend, but none really has any interest in affaires d'amour. They're happier playing complicated rounds of charades (which the guests never figure out) and re-enacting episodes from Judith's melodramas. The guests never get in the loop, so one by one, they flee, the Blisses barely noticing they were there at all.

Done as well as this one is, a Noel Coward play sounds as though everyone present is acting under the influence of a great deal of champagne. In this Hay Fever, we have a cast of women drunk with talent.

The gals in Hairspray, the Broadway hit now winding up a road tour stop at the Fair Park Music Hall, are bigger than life in a different way. Plus-size teenager Tracy Turnblad (Keala Settle) dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, a Baltimore after-school broadcast that bars blacks and fatties from the airwaves. Tracy's plus-plus-size mom, Edna (John Pinette in a flowery dress that could cover a Quonset hut), urges her to go for it. She does and gets everything she wants, including the cute boy, Link Larkin (Sergei Kushnier), who sees the beauty under Tracy's deep skin.

Not quite as numbingly stupid as the current crush of jukebox shows (Mamma Mia!, Good Vibrations, Movin' Out), Hairspray leads a Broadway trend that dumbs down music and script to the lowest IQs. If Gypsy and Follies stand as two of the smartest of Broadway's senior class, then Hairspray is a show that rides the short bus.

The touring cast onstage here is every bit as good as the original Broadway ensemble, if that tells you anything. Energy bubbles, voices belt. The dancers fling, flang, flung themselves into a frenzy. But look closely and you'll see some extra artificial padding around this Tracy's backside. She's not really such an "ample American" after all. Report her to Kirstie Alley. This fat actress is faking her flubber.

Adapted from the subversive "hair hopper" movie by John Waters, Hairspray now is a watered-down pageant of go-go boots and Pucci prints bopping along on forgettably pleasant songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and jokey dialogue by Mark O'Donnell and Thomas Meehan. "I'm like a half-filled book of Green Stamps," Edna moans. "Beyond redemption."

You said it, sister. Waters' real joke is on us for buying into this dippity-doo-doo as great musical theater. His movie, full of ugly people and garish images that sent up middle-class values, has been fried, dyed and shoved to the side for Hairspray the family-friendly Broadway confection. Cash those checks, John, and have a good laugh.

Would you pay to watch actors flub lines and sneak out for smoke breaks? At Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the Lower Greenville venue owned by actress Sue Loncar and lawyer-husband Brian (the "strong arm" from TV ads), new general manager Tom Sime is considering charging admission to rehearsals and production meetings. Sime, until a few weeks ago a Dallas Morning News theater critic, floated the idea of "Reality Theater" via e-mail to area directors, saying he hopes to "cultivate relationships with our patrons and foster a sense of what some call ownership."

WaterTower Theatre already offers top-level subscribers access to an early rehearsal. "But there's not much interest in it," says James Lemons, WTT communications director and frequent play director (he's currently staging Enchanted April). "The rehearsal process is a fragile thing. You have to let actors mess up. Putting them on display could be a problem."

Actor Coy Covington chimes in: "What you see in rehearsal may not be what eventually ends up on stage. And while this might be interesting for audience members/subscribers--I personally can't imagine it would be--for the creative team it would be distracting and potentially inhibiting."

It's theater as petting zoo, actors as baby goats to be ogled and giggled at. Except, says Sime in his dispatch to directors, visitors would "be instructed to be absolutely quiet and would be restricted to the balcony...[They] would quickly realize how dull rehearsals can be, and probably wouldn't stay that long." So you pay to get in, but it's boring, unpolished and you have to be quiet. A lot of theater is like that anyway.

Reality Theater strikes me as an oxymoron. According to the old Uncertainty Principle, the act of observing alters the reality of the thing observed. At some point, actors being actors, they'd start hamming it up for reactions from the peanut gallery. Life may be a cabaret, old chum, but leave the baby goats alone until opening night.