Watching "Fefu and Her Friends," which the Paradise Island Express has mounted with a good deal of intelligence and taste for a run through July 31 at the Washington Project for the Arts, is rather like snooping.

Imagine that you have been introduced, sight unseen, into the spacious living room of a New England home in the mid-1930s. The house belongs to a bizarre woman, nicknamed Fefu by the seven women friends who have dropped in on her this particular day. Just who they are and exactly what it is that binds them together is for you to find out--by eavesdropping. To that end, you are able to wander into the garden, the kitchen, the den and the bedroom, then back to the living room--catching these eight women in various combinations, at various activities and in the midst of various confessions.

Maria Irene Fornes' play, which first surfaced in 1977 off-off-Broadway, requires of its spectators a considerable exercise of intuition, and even then its meanings are apt to be strictly personal. But it has some startling shafts of poetry and insight, along with patches of pure obfuscation. While it will frustrate those who like their plays neatly distilled, it is likely to tantalize those with wide-open minds.

The eight characters apparently have gathered to organize some sort of fund-raising event in the near future. But that concern doesn't really surface until the last half hour. Up to then, "Fefu" is an oblique exploration of female psyches, some more troubled than others, with only shards of biographical information as guide posts.

We discover, for instance, that Fefu (Laura Giannarelli) has an off-stage husband, who married her so as to be reminded of how "loathsome women are." Periodically, Fefu seizes a shotgun and takes aim at him in the garden. He crumbles, according to the preordained rules of the game, before picking himself up. The gun is not loaded, which doesn't necessarily mean it won't be one day. Gracious and warm with her guests, Fefu is nonetheless filled with upsetting ideas. She enjoys the emotion of revulsion (it gives her "something to grapple with"), and one key to the play may well lie in her fascination for peering under rocks. Under the smooth exterior, she explains, is "the damp, filled with fungus and crawling with worms."

Fornes' women can be viewed in a similar fashion. Dressed stylishly for a cool summer's day, they are in varying degrees possessed of visions and bad dreams, self-hatred and ambivalence. The most startling is Julia (Hannah Weil), who may or may not have been paralyzed by a hunter's bullet, but now clings to her wheelchair, tormented by invisible "judges" and haunted by the notion that women's "entrails" make them heavy and impure.

Basically, of course, theater is a kind of eavesdropping. What enhances the impression at the WPA is the curiously splintered shape of "Fefu." The first part, which takes place in the living room, is attended by the audience as a whole. Then the spectators are divided into four groups, each of which is led to a different part of the hall, where a bedroom, den, kitchen and croquet court have been set up, rather like stations of the cross. The scenes in these four locales are performed simultaneously, with the spectators moving from one to another, until all four groups have seen all four scenes. Then, the audience reconstitutes itself and moves back to the living room to watch the concluding part.

The conceit is more than just a gimmick. Fornes, you see, is literally asking her audience to "track down" her characters. Whether or not you actually will unlock the secrets in their heads is debatable. But there is no denying the physical sensation, as you move from locale to locale, of being onto something. Evidence, contradictory as it may sometimes be, is being accumulated. Theater-goers are being transformed into sleuths.

In the kitchen, for instance, we discover that Cecilia (Gillian Doyle) and Paula (Barbara Klein) once were lovers and still nurture conflicting feelings for one another. In the bedroom, Julia has left her wheelchair for a rest and is in the grip of her demented god. On the lawn, Fefu admits to the flamboyant Emma (Karen Bralove) that she is in nearly constant anguish and "without spiritual lubricant."

In a less sure-handed production, I suspect all this could be wildly off-putting. But Deirdre Lavrakas' direction is terribly astute in that it constantly intimates the possibility of explanations. The tone is always direct, straightforward, even if the play itself isn't.

I had some quibbles with the eight actresses (since she is said to be such a magnet, Fefu really could have more charm; Emma's flamboyance could be less self-conscious), but generally they function as a strong ensemble. Lavrakas has instilled in them the virtue of understatement, thereby lending an aura of "still waters" to the evening. Klein and Doyle certainly handle the suggestions of lesbianism with commendable subtlety, and Weil, gripped by the play's strangest passions, makes Paula's surrealistic imaginings palpably real. Jane Lange, Wendy MacLeod and Karma Shively have less to do, being the least troubled members of this clan, but they project convincing ease and common sense in Fefu's wonderland.

Kim Peter Kovac and Christopher Hurt have designed the multiple sets, which are far more finished than those for previous productions by Paradise Island Express; William Pucilosky has provided the period clothes, and Jean S. Rosenthal has conceived and coordinated the lighting with expertise.

"Fefu" may lie just beyond the rational mind's grasp, but the strength of this production is that it has you thinking, "If only I could look into one more room, catch one more exchange, come back a minute later." In short, it lures you into a labyrinth of the mind. Finding a way back out is your responsibility.

FEFU AND HER FRIENDS. By Maria Irene Fornes. Directed by Deirdre Lavrakas; sets, Kim Peter Kovac and Christopher Hurt; interior design, Maye Rosenthal; lighting, Jean S. Rosenthal; costumes, William Pucilosky; hair design, Ponchy Santalla. With Karen Bralove, Gillian Doyle, Laura Giannarelli, Barbara Klein, Jane Lange, Wendy MacLeod, Karma Shively, Hannah Weil. At the WPA through July 31.