It was a rainy night in New York, and a small, Off-Broadway theatre was packed….

OK, it was Greensboro, in Triad Stage’s UpStage Cabaret. But inside it felt like New York, and even more so because the play, Next Fall, which came from Off-Broadway to be Tony-nominated for best play of the year in 2010, was being produced by Paper Lantern Theatre Company to kick off its fourth season.

UpStage Cabaret is an intimate space and a perfect setting for a play of such intimacy and microcosmic power. The story of a gay relationship and its vicissitudes, Next Fall was written by Geoffrey Nauffts and directed by Paper Lantern’s Jonathan Bohun Brady, who has been director and assistant director for several Triad Stage productions and is on the faculty at Bennett College.

DH Johnson is Adam, one half of Next Fall‘s seemingly odd couple, and Luke, his lover, is played by James French, a theatre major at Wake Forest University. Part atheist, part devout Christian, this duo explores the highs and lows of being together, including putting up a front for Luke’s father, Butch, played by stage and film veteran Richard Fullerton.

The plot is advanced by use of flashback, and there is a kind of eerie quality to French’s appearances in these flashbacks. Whether it was the sound of the rain on the theatre roof (you can’t pay for those sound effects) or merely the juxtaposition of scenes, French became almost an apparition – real, but at the same time unreal.

Paper Lantern, a company in its youth, dedicates itself, it says, to producing shows that might otherwise not be seen in the Triad. Said one of its members when Paper Lantern first opened, “We might be playing in front of an empty house.” That was certainly not the case this night; in fact, it looked to be the hottest ticket in town. The audience was spirited and appreciative, as it should have been, for this play is a roller coaster of intense feeling and shocking numbness, of rejection and acceptance, of life and love.

There is that moment in certain productions when an audience member can almost palpably feel the fourth wall – that separation between audience and actors – disintegrate. It’s the mark of a very special production, and Next Fall is one of those.

Perhaps it is part the aplomb of DH Johnson, whose voice and visage beg comparison to a young John Lithgow, only sharper and even more acerbic. Johnson’s experience as a veteran of stage and films (such as Oscar winner for short film “Two Soldiers”) is apparent, and he commands the stage effortlessly and transparently.

It is, after all, Johnson’s character Adam around which the action centers. It is Adam who is conflicted on many fronts and Adam who is left at last with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of finding some comfort after a senseless tragedy.

Other cast members Amy da Luz as Luke’s mother Arlene, Allison Lamb (Holly), and Adam Kampouris (Brandon) blend their talents to make Next Fall a haunting performance that will transform and transport you.

Kudos also to scenic and lighting designer Jonathan Christman for turning hospital waiting room into apartment and back again.

And if you walk out of Pyrle Theatre half expecting to hail a yellow cab and see steam rising from manhole covers, you will realize you have had a truly authentic theatre experience, and you will be grateful.

Next Fallcontinues through 1/29. For details, see the sidebar.