A sweet, geriatric romance

Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse was packed Oct. 1 for the world premiere of “The Bells of Geneva.” The play, written by Alaska theater icon Dick Reichman, focuses on the secret love lives of pianists and piano-tuners and gives a sweet reverence to the mystical aspect of love.

“Bells” tells the story of Doris (Bernie Blaine), a depressed old piano virtuoso, as she is confronted by a fellow resident of her nursing home, an extremely eccentric old man (Dick Reichman) who hides in closets and thinks the mafia is after him. We quickly discover he used to tune her piano before her concerts and has been in love with her for 50 years, but he never had the courage to tell her. He is obsessed with a decades-old encounter that convinced him they have an ethereal connection and loved each other in past lives. If you accept this, you can appreciate their quirky romance.

Blaine is hands down the star of the show. She brings out the melancholy longings of Doris very well. We want her to overcome her doubts, depression and arthritis so she can play her beautiful music again. Blaine handled this longing with grace and sensitivity and never let the innate emotion of the script become trite or over the top.

Reichman, starring in his own work, was effective in his portrayal of the crazy old piano-tuner. His wonderfully poetic monologues were beautiful when intertwined the music playing behind them.

One of the best aspects of the show was when Reichman and Blaine “listen” to music, which involves them thinking about the same piece of music at the same time. They are both piano people and they talk about the music like professional musicians. Whenever this happens, the audience can hear the chosen piece they are hearing in the background. In “Bells,” the elegant music reinforces the dialogue and makes the emotional moments powerful. It’s as if Reichman’s dialogue was trying to say in words what the music tries to express, and with the words guiding us we understand how powerful and stirring a piece of classical music can be.

Between these high moments, the play is mostly a sort of bickering, circular gag, which involves getting in and out of a closet or jokes about classical music that you have to be a music connoisseur to really appreciate. Both are worth a brief laugh, but not much more.

These less emotional moments could have been played up for more laughs. For example, in the scene with the closet, the comedic potential was very high and, while not falling flat, it wasn’t as funny as it could have been. The individual performances were strong but as a group, the cast lacked timing.

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The play is enjoyable and provides an entertaining and thoughtful evening. The overlying message of the play is universal: life is too short to pass on love, but it’s never too late until it’s over.

“The Bells of Geneva” plays at Cyrano’s Off-Center Playhouse Thursdays-Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. through Oct. 17. Timothy Smith, Professor of piano and head of piano studies at UAA, will be at the Oct. 10 performance. Following the show, Smith will lead a conversation with the audience. Don’t miss the free pizza following the discussion.