British playwright Simon Gray could never be accused of proselytizing for the academic world. Six of the seven characters in his latest play, "Quartermaine's Terms" (at Playhouse 91), are teachers of the English language in a school that caters to foreign students. The seventh character presides over the institution. All of them appear to have made a pretty mess of things.

Out of their misery and failed aspirations, however, Gray has struck a brilliant play, wickedly comic at the same time it is almost ruefully sad. Gray has an ability to ferret out and expose human weaknesses that would border on the sadistic, if he did not also possess a certain tenderness for second-rate creatures. "Quartermaine's Terms" never strays from the staff room, where the teachers meet before and after classes to exchange small talk. But by the time the play is done, Gray has actually taken us to the core of their misguided lives.

The play, which follows in the footsteps of "Butley" and "Otherwise Engaged," also spins a fascinating variation on Gray's preoccupation with the solitary individual. "Butley" had as its central character a bitter professor who drove the world from his door with vituperation and nastiness. "Otherwise Engaged" showed us a put-upon publisher, whose seemingly passive accommodation of a whole parade of nuisances was, in reality, a calculated act of egotism.

St. John Quartermaine, although hardly a professorial pillar, is the keystone of "Quartermaine's Terms." A gentleman of manners and decency, perhaps, he is the ultimate cipher, possessing no more gumption than a doormat. The other characters pay him little mind, except when they suddenly find themselves short of a babysitter. While everyone talks to him--at him, would be more accurate--no one heeds his responses. Quartermaine doesn't finish half of them anyway. Midsentence, he drifts off, lost in reveries that probably wouldn't be very interesting if he ever managed to put words to them. Like the elegant swans he admires so much, Quartermaine is a strange bird, out of place in a society that has lost any claim on grace.

Yet, as played with wonderfully self-effacing dignity by Remak Ramsay, this nobody is quite the most touching figure in Gray's play. Ramsay's face bears a permanent look of absence, only the slight furrows on his broad brow suggesting that maybe once, long ago, tumult may have accidentally touched his life. When he rallies to the moment, it's usually a beat too late. His mind is clearly engaged in a perpetual disappearing act. In short, at the center of Gray's drama is a creature who simply isn't there.

Quartermaine's fellow teachers are going through all manner of upheavals and traumas, and bits and pieces of their individual biographies accumulate in the course of the play, so that by the end we can pretty much chart the disastrous fortunes of their lives out of school. However, Gray's dark etching of the surrounding characters has a curious reverse effect: it actually serves to define, if only by contrast, Quartermaine himself. You probably couldn't come up with five salient facts about the man--Quartermaine himself would likely give up after two--but still you feel you know him as personally as his fellow teachers. And when he finally gets the ax for his utterly lackluster ways in the classroom, you bleed a little for him. Without him, this dim little school will be even dimmer.

Quartermaine's colleagues bring some heavy emotional baggage into the staff room. The dour Melanie (Dana Ivey) is nursing an invalid mother at home until the poor woman tumbles (or was she pushed?) down the stairs. Derek (Anthony Heald) is an eager beaver, whose eagerness merely lays him open to a dazzling succession of accidents. Anita (Caroline Lagerfelt) is dealing nobly, but poorly, with an erring husband. Mark (Kelsey Grammer), a would-be novelist, clearly values his third-rate talent over wife and kids. And grave, ponderous Henry (John Cunningham) brings so much pressure on his daughter to achieve that she commits suicide.

Grim as that may sound, Gray's play manages to be acutely funny. The humor comes not from the particular misfortunes, but from the way one character invariably manages to elbow another's problems aside in favor of his own. No one means to be unsympathetic, but by the same token, everybody has his own grievance to tend to and there are, after all, only so many minutes between classes. Not a lot of serious listening gets done. As an orchestration of the basic inattentiveness of the human race, "Quartermaine's Terms" is devastating.

It is acted superbly by a cast that simply assumes the characters' pettiness as second nature and then proceeds dutifully with the inadvertent cruelties of the day. Ivey, especially, goes through a stunning transformation--the suffering spinster, straining under the yoke of a mother she hates, until the yoke is lifted and she blossoms into a religious fanatic and then a lush. Director Kenneth Frankel has given full play to Gray's rich subtext, often at odds with the banalities of the passing chatter. The result is a stingingly observant look at a brotherhood of academic washouts.

In their midst--with them, but not really of them--stands St. John Quartermaine, his soul as white as an unmarked piece of parchment. Perhaps for that, he is the black sheep of this sorry family.

QUARTERMAINE'S TERMS. By Simon Gray. Directed by Kenneth Frankel; set, David Jenkins; costumes, Bill Walker; lighting, Pat Collins. With Remak Ramsay, John Cunninghan, Kelsey Grammer, Anthony Heald, Dana Ivey, Caroline Lagerfelt, Roy Poole. In New York City at the Playhouse 91.