An Actor's Actor

Actor Phillip Clark offers the unexpected observation that despite the surrealist--inarguably nihilistic--elements in "Omnium Gatherum," it is ultimately a comedy: "An old-fashioned comedy about friendship and love. It's a coming together. In the beginning, all the characters are defined by their ideologies. But, in the trenches, they throw those ideologies away and learn that the only things that matter are love and friendship and food, that primal need."

"Omnium Gatherum," which bowed Off-Broadway at the Variety Arts Theatre on Sept. 25, considers what happens when a group of the most unlikely dinner companions convene for a sumptuous meal, awash in jolly debate and contention, in the days following Sept. 11, 2001. With more than a nod to Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic," the cast of characters includes the fictional stand-ins for such wealthy prototypes as Martha Stewart, the recently deceased Palestinian sympathizer Edward Said, liberal journalist Christopher Hitchens, and conservative novelist Tom Clancy (called Roger, and played by Clark in a notable performance). A fireman is on hand, and so is a terrorist, who has also been invited to partake in the festivities. Outside, sirens blast and bombs explode while the revelers booze and gorge and dance the night away to Frank Sinatra warbling "I've Got the World on a String."

So, what's an audience to think? Clark doesn't miss a beat. "That's it. Think. Gertrude Stein said--and now I'm paraphrasing--'It's not the answer, it's the question.' "

Undoubtedly, this is not an easy play for the audience or the actors, admits Clark, who says the most daunting task for him is maintaining "Roger's humanity, despite his boorish manner and conservative, hawkish views. He is rude, but I love this guy because of his honesty and passion. He loves a good fight. He loves red meat and when he burps he really burps.

"Roger is not literally Tom Clancy, but I did watch some interviews with Clancy who, unlike Roger, is a quiet guy. But Clancy is absolutely convinced that everything he writes is the truth or will be. I tried to use that [arrogant conviction] in my performance."

The pitfalls of one-dimensional acting aside, there are the challenges of style and rhythm that come with fast-paced comedy, complete with overlapping dialogue, continues Clark, a San Diego native who meets us in an East Village restaurant before a performance. "And then there are the physical challenges. We are all eating on stage, and for my character, who eats with passion, I have to take big bites, but not so big that I can't get my lines out. We have two people backstage who are, if necessary, prepared to administer the Heimlich maneuver."

Still Learning

The macho-looking Clark, with easygoing charm to spare, is modest, refreshingly so. He concedes, for example, that the last time he was interviewed was more than 20 years ago when he was in a low-rated soap opera. He later recalls a not entirely flattering episode with a casting director whom he had encountered that day. When she met Clark, she praised his performance in "Omnium Gatherum" to the hilt.

"The only problem was she was talking about another actor in the show," Clark says. "When I told her that she had me confused with someone else, she said, 'Which one were you?' After I informed her, she thought about that for a moment and then said, 'Oh, you were good, too.' "

Clark, who boasts a host of regional credits--at such institutions as the Cleveland Play House and the Mark Taper Forum, among others-insists he gets his feedback from audiences, not semiconscious casting directors, or even critics. Indeed, he says he never reads reviews and then confesses sheepishly that he's not exactly telling the truth.

Still, if reviews are bad, they only hurt your feelings and serve no useful purpose, he points out. "It's very hard to perform the night after a bad review, and if they're good, you're trying to repeat yourself?and that rarely works."

Clark is the classic actor's actor, although at one time, he says, "I wanted the glory, but now I'm just happy to work and get paid for it." He adds, "I'm still trying to figure out acting. Every new role makes me feel as if I've never acted before."

Play It Big

Clark attended San Diego State and the University of Southern California, where he majored in English, before heading to New York to study with a host of legendary acting teachers, including Herbert Berghof, Harold Clurman, and Bobby Lewis, whom Clark especially liked for his "practicality."

"He had us stay in our seats for the longest time, just reading the scripts out loud before letting us get up on our feet. Some teachers and directors get you on your feet far too soon. Some even give actors line readings, at least they used to."

Clark, who has worked with dozens of directors over the years, suggests "once an actor has been cast in a role--casting is the key--he should be given the freedom by the director to try things. I was once told by a soap opera director, 'If you want to do something, don't ask the director for permission. He might say no. Just do it. Of course, if he likes it, he may take credit for it.' "

Clark says that contrary to the current fashion in acting that advocates the idea that less is more, he loves the over-the-top movie stars of the '30s and '40s, like Charles Laughton, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. "James Cagney once said, 'I can act as big as I want as long as I'm honest.' I believe there is room for larger-than-life performance if it's interesting.

"Look," he continues, "the quality of acting today is better than it ever has been, but I miss the great personalities. The style of acting, especially in film, has become very close to the vest."

Clark says there are dozens of roles he'd still love to play, "like Jamie in 'A Moon for the Misbegotten,' and Chekhov and Ibsen and O'Casey. I want to do it all."

Describing the trajectory of his career, Clark quips, "When I didn't know anything about acting, I got lots of work. Then there was the period when I knew something about acting and got no work. Now, for the first time, I know what I'm doing and I'm getting work, but I still don't have a job lined up for me after this one closes."

That said, he has no regrets and won't, he asserts, if the words on his epitaph read: "He Paid His Bills. And He Worked."