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British playwright noted for caustic comedies

Times Theater Critic

Simon Gray, the English playwright whose work gave voice to the caustic wit of bookish curmudgeons, died Wednesday in London after a long battle with cancer. He was 71.

An unreformed nicotine fanatic who found an appreciative new generation of readers with a trilogy of memoirs that began in 2004 with “The Smoking Diaries,” Gray had a talent for erudite wisecracks, liquor-quickened invective and mildly subversive truth-telling. Never one to conceal -- or moralize about -- his vices, he was a man who, forced to give up his beloved Scotch when his health declined, switched to champagne, which he claimed to have enjoyed copiously until a medical emergency finally forced him into sobriety.

True to authorial form, many of his muddling, middle-class characters regard their lives with a hangover squint, responding to those around them as though they were intruders on a desperately precious silence. But Gray’s baleful comedy wasn’t so much a call to self-destructive excess as a reminder of the psychological necessity of privacy, the qualified pleasures of literary eccentricity and the sanctity of life led without a permission slip.

Scratch the abrasive surface of his work and you’ll eventually tap into something somber and lonely and, for all the eviscerating sarcasm, not unsympathetic. At its best, Gray’s sensibility found a way of marrying the elegiac tone of Anton Chekhov with the dyspeptic shrewdness of the English poet Philip Larkin -- the dull ache of life growing not just acrimonious but also acutely funny.

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“Wise Child” (1967), Gray’s first major play, daringly paired a hysterical (and possibly homosexual) young criminal with a convict in drag. Sir Alec Guinness played the part of the transvestite, which caused something of, in the playwright’s own words, “a succes de scandale.”

But it was “Butley” (1971), a drama about a venomous academic whose wife has left him and whose attachment to a gay male student comes to naught, that brought Gray his first smash. The premiere, directed by playwright Harold Pinter in the West End, was a hit largely because of Alan Bates’ acerbic tour de force in the title role, which he reprised on Broadway the next year (winning a Tony Award) and in the 1974 film version.

Bates, who became a kind of muse for Gray, would go on to star in a number of his dramas, including “Otherwise Engaged” (1975), “Stage Struck” (1979), “Melon” (1987), “Simply Disconnected” (1996) and “Life Support” (1997). And Pinter, a long-standing friend, would continue to lend his directorial services from time to time.

Born Oct. 21, 1936, in Hamsphire, England, to James Davidson Gray, a pathologist, and Barbara Cecelia Mary, Gray was educated at Dalhousie University in Canada, where he was first sent as a boy during World War II, and the University of Cambridge. He taught English for years at the University of London’s Queen Mary College and, ever prolific, had already published several novels before venturing into playwriting.

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Not surprisingly, quite a few of Gray’s dramas have academic settings or literary subject matter, including “Close of Play” (1979), “Quartermaine’s Terms” (1981) and “The Common Pursuit” (1984). “Otherwise Engaged,” which had a lengthy Broadway run in 1977 and crystallizes many of the writer’s recurring themes, involves a publisher who is pummeled by a succession of hostile visitors just as he’s attempting to escape from the world with a new recording of Wagner’s “Parsifal.”

Intellectual chatter is common among Gray’s cultivated characters, though an ambiguous silence pervades their existence. Typically, not much works out for his protagonists, who employ their verbal dexterity more as a weapon than as a solution to what ails them -- Freud’s talking cure not being their favored nip.

Gray thrived in multiple mediums, including television, for which he wrote adaptations as well as original works. His teleplays include “After Pilkington” (1987), “They Never Slept” (1991) and “Running Late” (1992). He also wrote the film adaptation of “A Month in the Country” (1987), based on the novel by J.L. Carr.

Gray’s theatrical reputation may have dimmed in the U.S. -- a 2006 revival of “Butley” with Nathan Lane, the first Broadway showing by the playwright in almost three decades, received mixed reviews. But his unsparingly honest journals, chronicling his marital strife, dependence on alcohol and tobacco, and the illnesses and losses ushered in by age, have kept him in the spotlight.

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“The Last Cigarette,” published this year, concludes the three-part series of revelations launched by “The Smoking Diaries” and followed by “The Year of the Jouncer” (2006). Characteristically, the style is as unabashedly roguish as it is remorseful, written with the histrionic aplomb of someone who, despite his secluded habits as an obsessive writer, was curiously at home in the theater.

Indeed, Gray -- who is survived by his wife, Victoria Rothschild (daughter of the third Baron Rothschild) and two children from his first marriage to Beryl Kevern, Benjamin and Lucy -- is reported to have been working on a stage adaptation of “The Last Cigarette” in his final days.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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