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.
As adapted by Gene Feist, the play moves briskly and absorbingly, and with a minimum of directorial innovation. If Mr. Seamon appears rather young for Solness, the actor nevertheless conveys the man's brusque arrogance, deep-seated fears, his ardor and the demonic drives that touch on mental disturbance. However Solness may attempt to rationalize it, he represents the case of a man who gave up erecting churches for materialisic success as a real estate developer and builder.
On occasion, Solness pictures himself as a kind of Norwegian troll figure. He extols the age of primitive Viking marauders. Hilda mingles childlike candor and courage with a highly charged imagination and (to borrow a phrase) a whim of iron. Her fascination and fanaticism are fatal.
The most affecting passages in this revival are provided by Joan Potter as the master builder's dutiful but unhappy wife, whose marriage has become little more than a protracted estrangement. Nothing in the Roundabout performance is more touching than the quiet sorrow with which Miss Potter delivers Aline Solness's recital of the losses she suffered in the fire that destroyed her parental home - the fire on whose ruins Solness began to build his success.
The revival is reliably served by Susan Pellegrino as the miserably smitten Kaia Fosli (whom Solness discards with Hilda's arrival); Tom Klunis as the Solness family doctor; and Maury Cooper as the ruined architect, Brovik. As Brovik's son, Keith Reddin seems more like an office slave than the embodiment of the challenge Solness fears.
Set designer Roger Mooney has efficiently condensed the three settings of the original play into one all-purpose arrangement. (The play's architecture has been rearranged by compressing Ibsen's three acts into a first act and a two-scene second act.) Judy Rasmuson's muted lighting harmonizes with the mood of the play. Eloise Lunde's period costumes enhance the sense of place and time - Norway in the 1890s.