Midway through "Fefu and Her Friends," Maria Irene Fornes' drama about women in love and out of it, an usher leads you around Fefu's house -- and into the heart of the play.

As delicate as a watch movement and as intricate as a fugue, the play's unfolding midsection is the handsomest part of a handsome production by the Paradise Island Express. It's a theatrical experiment at the Washington Project for the Arts: an involving piece of stagecraft that's also great fun.

The play itself, in three parts without a break, treats a weekend gathering, circa 1935, of several articulate, thoroughly modern women -- all colleagues and teachers, some of them friends and lovers -- at the New England country house of their oddball hostess. Fefu keeps a shotgun against a credenza in the parlor, and amuses herself by aiming out the window at her husband Phillip and firing.

"I shoot and he falls," Fefu, played with apt theatricality by Laura Giannarelli, explains to her shocked guests, adding that she's never sure whether the gun is actually loaded. "It's how we are with each other," she says, trying to shock further. "We always go to extremes, but it's nothing to be upset about."

The women have come ostensibly to plan a formal presentation on education; they end up tackling the tribulations of womanhood, by way of parlor perorations and cozy kitchen chats. Men are conspicuous by their absence, except as an outside influence, to be waved at or beckoned to, and an occasionally sinister force.

The tone is Chekovian, with primal echoes of D.H. Lawrence. The abstracted dialogue drags at times, and the play's violent climax is unconvincing. But getting there is worthwhile.

With an eight-woman cast directed by Deirdre Lavrakas, the show boasts some nicely calibrated performances, especially from Hanna Weil as Julia. In public, she's meek and mousy, perched primly in a wheelchair and managing a smile; in private, writhing on a mattress, she's a woman possessed by raging demons, monsters that cripple her with visions that "women are evil."

That's one of the vignettes you see as a peripatetic audience. Trekking through an evocative set by Kim Peter Kovac and Christopher Hurt, you spy on everyone chez Fefu at close range: Christina typing French phrases and Cindy leafing through National Geographic while gossiping about their hostess in the study, with Fefu appearing suddenly to invite them to croquet; Fefu and Emma playing croquet on the lawn while plumbing the mysteries of sex, until Fefu goes inside and Emma sings a song; erstwhile lovers Paula and Sue having a pained heart-to-heart in the kitchen while Cecilia makes soup and Fefu pops in to invite them out; and poor, paralyzed Julia awakening to hallucinations of sexual possession in the bedroom until distracted by Cecilia bringing soup on a tray.

The above may sound complicated, especially when you consider that the four scenes are enacted simultaneously and repeated for an audience divided into four groups, with each group watching the quartet of scenes in a different order -- and thus watching a different play. Complicated, yes -- but it works.

You're close enough to touch the characters in action, and suddenly on intimate- enough terms with them to grasp what they're about. FEFU AND HER FRIENDS -- At the Washington Project for the Arts, 400 Seventh Street NW, through July 31.