The Roundabout Theatre Company has opened its 18th season with an intelligent , expressive, and engaging production of one of Henrik Ibsen's most autobiographical works. Like the glow from the oil lamps illuminating the well-ordered premises in which the drama unfolds, the revival sheds its own lights on the somberness of ''The Master Builder.'' The central situation reflects, among other things, an intense relationship experienced by the 61 -year-old Ibsen before his return to Norway after a 30-year absence.
Nearly a century after it was written, ''The Master Builder'' still retains some of its strange and enigmatic qualities. At its core is the fear of and obsession with the challenge of youth that Ibsen shared with Halvard Solness, the tragedy's master builder.
The youth that Solness (Edward Seamon) hears knocking metaphorically at his door turns up in the frank, high-spirited, and fanciful person of Hilda Wangel (Laurie Kennedy). Ten years before the play begins, Hilda had watched entranced as Solness climbed the scaffolding of a church he had just completed to place a symbolic wreath on its spire. In the course of subsequent celebrations, Solness had kissed Hilda ''many times'' and had promised to come back in 10 years for his young ''princess.'' Instead, Hilda has come in search of Solness.
In David Hammond's evenhanded staging, ''The Master Builder'' fulfills its purpose as a study of human ruthlessness, intentional or otherwise. The ambitious master builder has pursued his upward course without regard for others - destroying the architect who now works for him and subjugating the man's son, a Solness draftsman. Solness has purchased success at the expense of happiness.
Hilda manifests the ruthlessness of youth. She softens Solness - at one point prevailing on him to endorse the young architect's plans, if only for the sake of his dying father. But Hilda ultimately urges Solness on to the act that proves fatal for him: placing a wreath on the spire of the Solness home he has just finished building.