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By my lights, there are two kinds of jokes: the funny kind (“Elvis, Osama, and a hedgehog walk into a bar…”) and the not-funny kind (“Bush wants to invade where?”). To the Classika Theatre troupe, there’s a third, and it’s hard to describe. Director Veniamin Filshtinsky seems bent on convincing us that Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov isn’t the sad sack we playgoers think, but when a theatrical performance has a sobbing widow 10 minutes in and a rifle barrel in the mouth 10 minutes from the end, it’s tricky to win the yuks. To showcase the writer’s lighter side, Classika, the sometimes painfully earnest but generally thoroughgoing Arlington company known for both classic children’s theater and such pitch-dark adult fare as Anouilh’s Antigone, has paired Chekhov one-acts The Bear (called by its author “a stupid vaudeville”) and The Marriage Proposal (“a scabby little vaudeville”). Each involves someone harsh, someone fluttery, and someone oafish. Thomas Nunan fills the title role in The Bear as a fellow trying to collect a debt from Lynette Morris’ ladylike widow, who at first scorns his lack of manners but eventually, defenses down and pretenses shattered, challenges him to a duel. It takes them a while to get the tone right: Morris is so close to sincere as she weeps over her dead husband’s shoes, Nunan so unbelievably silly as he snaps to salutes, that they have a pretty big gulf to cross to be in the same vaudeville. John Ortman’s Luka, meanwhile, is not so much comic foil as “Hey, it’s comedy”-sign carrier. But Morris and Nunan are such attractive performers that you warm to the mirthful intent of their eventual gunplay even when it feels a bit forced. The Marriage Proposal is more sharply humorous, with Barry Abrams nicely underplaying a dipsomaniac farmer and Brian MacIan as his daughter’s hypochondriac suitor in the evening’s two best performances. Renata Loman swaggers on with appropriate shrewishness as MacIan’s oblivious intended, but on opening night she seemed to slip out of character occasionally as she bellowed a harvest song (to the tune of “The Volga Boatmen”), as if more amused by it than the audience. (This sort of sloppiness, so antithetical to Classika, will undoubtedly be tidied up in no time.) A showbizzy introduction and closing, with some curtain calls so heavily milked that the lactose-intolerant should slip out early, only reinforce the idea that we have to be coerced into believing Chekhov can make us laugh rather than surprised into laughter by the work itself. Still, it’s a fitfully entertaining couple of hours, with the lowest body count of any grown-up production at Classika in a long time.—Pamela Murray Winters