The Dick Van Dyke Show
Season 2, Episode 14: “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra”
Original Airdate: Dec. 26, 1962
The Dick Van Dyke Show possesses numerous remarkable qualities, with one becoming increasingly evident as we progress through the series: its storytelling simplicity.
I’m referring not to the gags themselves, which are often ambitious and challenging to execute successfully.
Instead, the show’s approach to setting up its stories is refreshingly straightforward. It typically confines the action to a few extended scenes.
In the case of “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra,” there are two main scenes, excluding the framing scenes at the beginning and end of the episode.
Both of these scenes occur in a single location: the Petrie house.
Moreover, these scenes primarily unfold in a single room—the living room where local PTA members, under Rob’s direction, rehearse a show. Any departure from this room merely leads to the adjoining kitchen. This exemplifies situation comedy in its purest form.
This holds particularly true for the rehearsal sequence, which essentially extends one dilemma, cleverly hinted at in the title, into approximately fifteen minutes of hilariously escalating comedy.
In the scene preceding it, Mrs. Billings, Laura, and the rest of the PTA convince Rob to direct a fundraising show. This scene itself is a masterpiece.
Initially, Millie suggests a boat trip but hesitates, recalling a previous mishap.
Eventually, Mrs. Billings proposes a theatrical production, and as Rob tries to reject the idea, he inadvertently volunteers for the director’s role.
This results in one of those classic Rob Petrie moments when he fully grasps the situation he’s unwittingly stepped into.
We finally reach the wonderfully riotous rehearsal, where the central issue is determining who will portray Cleopatra.
At first, Millie assumes the role, with Harry Rogers cast as Marc Antony.
Initially, it appears that our leading man will provide most of the humor, but his misinterpretation of stage directions and his comically forgetful line readings, such as “Ah, Cleopatra, my enchanted, at last I have a-romed from rye!” serves as a delightful warm-up.
The real challenge for the flustered director, Rob, emerges when Jerry Helper becomes jealous upon witnessing Millie and Harry’s on-stage kiss.
This prompts Rob to replace Millie with Laura, accompanied by an air of self-superiority as he assures Jerry that he won’t feel jealous.
Care to guess how long that assurance holds up?
None of this follows any logical reasoning, of course.
When it becomes apparent that jealousy among spouses is going to be a problem, the straightforward solution would be to cast a married couple in the roles, such as having Jerry replace Harry.
However, one of the charming aspects of comedy is that the lack of thoughtful consideration by anyone involved in this farce isn’t a simple plot hole, as it would be in a dramatic episode.
Instead, it’s a characteristic of the complete comedic chaos, which consistently manages to outdo itself as it continues to unfold.
At this point, the sketch has seen two Cleopatras come and go, and now it’s time for Marc Antony to exit, courtesy of Harry’s wife objecting to his acting opposite Cynthia Harding, who replaced Millie and Laura.
I particularly enjoy his delivery of the excuse, “one of the kids is sick,” as he leaves as if no one heard the recent shouting match outside.
Finally, it’s Laura’s turn to object when Rob announces he’s taking on the role.
This is the breaking point for our beleaguered director, who exclaims, “I am going home!” and proceeds to walk out of his own house, delivering one of the memorable concluding punchlines in the history of The Dick Van Dyke Show.
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.
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