The downstairs studio at the Victory Gardens can be a cruel and unforgiving place.

Not only does the difference between actor and audience feel like inches, but even the slightest case of overacting is mercilessly punished. Delicate texts — and few texts are as delicate as a composite of Brian Friel and Anton Chekhov — can quickly be squelched into uneasy submission.

There are two interrelated main problems with Kay Martinovich's disappointing Irish Repertory of Chicago production of "Two By Friel," a double bill of Friel takes on texts Chekhovian.

First, both of these one-acts are overplayed. Second, there's a chronic lack of irony.

And if you're doing Friel after Chekhov and you're not brimming with that all-important quality, problems inevitably ensue. Come to think of it, if you are having an extra-marital affair and you've not got any irony, then problems ensue there too.

That's actually the point of Friel's "The Yalta Game," based on the Chekhov short-story "The Yalta Game" and a darkly comic meditation on a fin de siecle affair.

Man — married, trapped, regretful — meets beautiful young woman who happens to be holidaying without her husband. A seduction ensues — but not, sadly, happiness.

As both of these characters well know, the artificial life rarely allows for that.

Friel's short play was rapturously received when it premiered at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 2001. But in this version, it feels curiously out of whack. James Barry and Eva Bloomfield simply do not provide enough evidence that there's a whole other life — and thus a whole other play — below the surface.

The very young Bloomfield — whom I greatly admired last season in "Salome" — has palpable talent. And Barry has an appealing energy. But the duo flounders here, alternatively shouting and whispering, and never finding their collective center.

"The Bear," the rather more straightforward companion piece, also features Barry. This time he plays a grizzly fellow who bursts in on a feisty widow (played by Meghan Maureen McDonough) and demands payment of a past debt from her late husband. She is appalled by the bearish intrusion.

But as the pair fight, they fall in love. Even in the late 1880s, it was known that nothing gets the sexual blood stirring like a good scuffle.

Of the two shows, this is by far the livelier. McDonough has a nice hint of the droll, but you'll struggle to believe that there's much stirring betwixt this unlikely and never-quite-comfortable pair.

It's funny. On the surface, these two plays look simple and easy to stage. But even taken on their own, Friel and Chekhov have more layers than most cakes. Bake 'em together — especially in a small, see-through oven — and it requires a heck of a chef and a lot more cooking time than I suspect was anticipated here.