By Greg Boyd
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 14: “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra”
Original Airdate: Dec. 26, 1962
Of The Dick Van Dyke Show‘s many remarkable qualities, one that’s becoming more and more apparent as we progress through the series is the frequent simplicity of its storytelling. I’m not talking about the gags themselves, which are frequently ambitious and generally quite challenging to pull off well. But in terms of the way the show usually sets up its stories, its approach is often delightfully unfussy: confining the action to a mere handful of lengthy scenes. In the case of “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra”, we have two, not counting the framing scenes that bookend the episode. And both take place in one location: the Petrie house. They mostly take place in just one room, for that matter: the living room where local PTA members are, under the direction of Rob, rehearsing a show. And when the action does leave that room, it’s simply to go to the adjoining kitchen. This is situation comedy in its most undiluted form.
That’s particularly true of the rehearsal sequence, which is essentially one dilemma—the title gives it away—brilliantly stretched out for roughly fifteen minutes of gloriously escalating comedy. Rob has, in the scene preceding it, been convinced by Mrs. Billings (previously seen in “Forty-Four Tickets”, and the subject of a hilarious and uncanny impersonation by Rob in the episode’s opening pre-flashback scene), Laura, and the rest of the PTA to direct a show designed to raise money for the organization. This scene is itself a masterwork, as Millie first suggests a boat trip before trailing off when she remembers what happened on the previous one, before the idea for a theatrical production is tossed out by Mrs. Billings. And, in trying to shut down the idea, reluctant chairman Rob all but applies for the director’s job, leading to one of those great Rob Petrie looks as he realizes what he’s gotten himself into.
Only then do we get to that wonderful, riotously funny rehearsal, and the problem of who exactly is going to play Cleopatra. Initially the role belongs to Millie, with Harry Rogers playing opposite her as Marc Antony. Initially it seems as though our leading man is going to be responsible for much of the humor here, but his misunderstanding of stage directions and his terrible and forgetful line readings (“Ah, Cleopatra, my enchanted, at last I have a-romed from rye!”) are merely a delightful warm-up for the real issue facing Rob the flustered director: the jealousy of one Jerry Helper upon seeing Millie and Harry kiss. This leads Rob to replace Millie with Laura, as he tells Jerry—with an air of smug self-superiority—that he won’t get jealous. Guess how long that lasts?
None of this makes any logical sense, of course. Once it becomes clear that jealous spouses are going to be an issue, the obvious move would be to simply cast a married couple in the roles: Jerry replacing Harry, for instance. But one of the nice things about comedy is that the lack of thought by anyone involved in this farce isn’t the simple plot hole it would be in a dramatic episode, but merely a feature of the complete comic chaos, which somehow keeps finding a way to top itself as it simply goes on and on. The sketch has at this point gone through two Cleopatras, and now it’s time for it to lose its Marc Anthony, courtesy of Harry’s wife’s objections to him playing opposite Millie’s and Laura’s replacement, Cynthia Harding. (Love his delivery of “one of the kids is sick” as an excuse for leaving, as if no one heard the shouting match that took place a few seconds ago outside.) Finally it’s Laura’s turn to object when Rob declares he’s going to play the part. This is the last straw for our beleaguered director, who declares “I am going home!” and proceeds to walk out of his own house, in one of the great concluding punchlines in Dick Van Dyke history.
And that punchline is arguably followed up by an even better one, when we finally discover—upon returning to the present day—who did in fact wind up playing Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Mrs. Billings then shows up, and of course Rob ends up volunteering for the director’s job once again (after merely trying to talk her out of doing a musical version of Hamlet). In the end, the only real negative aspect of “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra” is that it’s just a darn shame we never get to see what sort of comedic mayhem ensues in this year’s rehearsals. But then, there’s something to be said for not trying to top perfection, and the endless ludicrousness of this episode is about as perfect as it gets.
In Two Weeks: “The Cat Burglar”