In the abstract, a bunch of irreverent, politically incorrect puppets wouldn't seem to be a logical choice for Tony-award-winning characters in a smash hit musical. Yet that's what the lovable creatures in "Avenue Q" have become, and they continue to draw devoted fans around the world.

If you go "Avenue Q" Where: Lansburgh Theatre, 450 Seventh St. NW When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; though Aug. 15 Info: $76 to $86; 202-547-1122;

Currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company's Lansburgh Theatre, "Avenue Q" is a clever concoction of social satire about the process of growing up, in which childlike anxieties about everything from sex to alcohol to homosexuality are presented with a very grown-up sense of wit and irony. With music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx (who both developed the original concept) and book by Jeff Whitty, "Avenue Q" tells the story of Princeton, an idealistic young man who comes to New York without much money and promptly loses his job.

But Princeton at least finds a place to live on Avenue Q, a grungy looking street where three old apartments all have dirty windows, where bags of garbage cluster between the steps to each door. Anna Louizos' set is full of just enough grime and grit to capture the sense of this dilapidated avenue in "an outer borough of New York City." There Princeton sets out to find his "purpose" in life.

What gives Princeton and his cohorts their true appeal is that, despite the fact that they are puppets, they take on a life of their own apart from their handlers. Even though only their heads and mouths and, in some cases, just one arm move and even though they are made of fuzzy materials and unnatural colors and have outrageous expressions, these single-rod, double-rod and live-hands puppets (designed by Rick Lyon), are amazingly lifelike.

There's the assistant kindergarten teacher Kate Monster, who is drawn to Princeton. There's Rod, the repressed, closeted investment banker; Rod's scruffy roommate, Nicky; sexy Lucy the Slut; surly Trekkie Monster, who lives for Internet porn; and two Bad Idea Bears who adore creating disorder.

Much of the fun of "Avenue Q" stems from the fact that most of these puppets, unlike "Sesame Street" familiars, are disillusioned by the reality of the city they see around them, a world full of selfish people preying on one another. The songs of "Avenue Q" reflect that disillusionment, particularly the ingenious "Schadenfreude," "It Sucks to be Me" and "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist."

All the puppets are animated by four handlers, who are extremely skillful at getting feelings across through tone of voice or gesture and at becoming invisible while in plain sight. On opening night, Brent Michael DiRoma gave astonishing life to Princeton and Rod, two very different characters who require totally different voices. Jacqueline Grabois also brilliantly portrayed the polar opposites, Kate and Lucy. Zach Trimmer handily animated Nicky, Trekkie Monster and a Bear, and Kerri Brackin played Mrs. T., a Bear and others.

There are three actors who don't manage puppets but are essential to creating the environment of Avenue Q: Christmas Eve (the superb Julianna Lee on opening night); her fiance, the out-of-work comedian Brian (Tim Kornblum); and building superintendent Gary Coleman (Charles M. Baskerville).

Under the savvy direction of Jason Moore, with slick choreography by Ken Roberson, this "Avenue Q" is a zany mix of imagination and energy in which quirky characters, clever lyrics and complicated puppetry mechanics combine to celebrate the fact that "life may be scary/but it's only temporary."