Triangle's production of Avenue Q has everything you'd expect from a dirty puppet show. The Tony-winning musical is feisty, proudly profane and includes a scene of wiggly puppet sex.

The joy of Avenue Q is generated partly from the spectacle of chubby-cheeked puppets swearing and singing songs like "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist." But there's also a tender beauty to the play as the puppets love, yearn and bumble their way through messy, all-too-human lives.

There are a few human characters in Avenue Q, including Brian (Dave Cole) and Christmas Eve (Justine Davis), a soon-to-be-married couple living in an apartment on the eponymous New York street. Yet most of their puppet neighbors (played by actors in dark clothing) are seamlessly imbued with life. There's the very furry Kate Monster (Hannah Wilson), bickering Bert-and-Ernie types Nicky and Rod (James Sharinghousen and Matthew Brown), and Princeton (Isaiah Rosales), a college graduate who slinks into the play with a song that has an equally gloomy and witty title, "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?"

Like many of the characters, Princeton is caught in the limbo between childhood and adulthood. He's like a character on an R-rated Sesame Street for angsty 20-somethings. He wants to discover his "purpose," and that desire both shapes the play and fuels much of its cruel fun, especially when Princeton ends up jobless, single and short one pizza thanks to a pair of thieving teddy bears.

By using unobtrusive lighting and a simple set (the front of the building where Kate Monster and company make their home), Horn holds back the play's gaudiest elements to give his cast space to develop the thoughts and feelings of their puppets with both comedy and compassion. The result is a production that convincingly oscillates between bits of crude wackiness and more somber scenes.

In one scene, the hairy behemoth Trekkie Monster (also played by Sharinghousen) belts out a song called "The Internet Is for Porn." But later on, a recently dumped Kate Monster sings "There's a fine, fine line between love and a waste of time," in a moment of show-stopping vulnerability.

At once lyrical and painful in its honesty, that scene dominates the play. Even Trekkie gets an intimate moment under a spotlight as he stares out of a window, ruminating on his feral nature.

Those moments define the production as much as all the wonderfully nasty dialogue. In the best way possible, that earnestness makes Avenue Q seem not so different from Sesame Street after all.

SEE IT: Avenue Q is at The Sanctuary at Sandy Plaza, 1785 NE Sandy Blvd., trianglepro.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, June 8-July 1. $15-$35.