The whole play is set near a bench in New York City's Central Park.
Peter, a clean-cut man in his mid-forties, sits on the bench, reading and smoking a pipe. He is approached by Jerry, a carelessly dressed man characterized by his “great weariness” (1). Without any provocation, Jerry states that he is coming from the zoo, and asks Peter to confirm that he is going north.
Peter complies, clearly uninterested in conversation. Nevertheless, Jerry continues to talk to him, and warns that Peter will probably get cancer from the pipe he is smoking. As Jerry expounds on this prognosis, he cannot find the word he is looking for. Peter suggests ‘prosthesis’, which leads Jerry to the conclusion that Peter is educated.
Jerry asks Peter if they can talk. Peter reluctantly agrees, and has to insist on his willingness when Jerry notices his reluctance. Jerry immediately tells Peter again that he has come from the zoo. Though Jerry converses awkwardly and seems to be ignoring Peter's small-talk, Peter makes his best effort to stay amiable. We learn that Peter has a wife, two daughters, and two parakeets, and that he seems to enjoy a normal upper-middle class life. Jerry asks whether Peter would prefer having sons, and Peter admits that he would. However, he quickly becomes offended when Jerry insinuates that Peter cannot have any more children, without any evidence on which to base that assumption.
Peter soon realizes that he has let Jerry get under his skin, and he forces himself to calm down. Jerry confides that he rarely talks to other people, but that he loves to know everything about people he does talk to. This admission makes Peter distinctly uncomfortable.
The conversation turns to Peter’s pets; Jerry implies that Peter has been emasculated by his wife and daughters' insistence on having cats instead of dogs.
The opening minutes of The Zoo Story are mostly focused on characterization. Considering that the play is centered around only two characters, however, this is quite important. Although Albee only gives the audience a small amount of information about Peter and Jerry, the details he chooses to include are carefully chosen. They tell us what we need to know about the play’s characters, and establish the contrasts between them.
Albee’s directions about costumes and acting are quite precise. For a reading experience, they can be useful since they give the audience hints about what to expect from the characters. Peter’s costume — which includes tweeds, a pipe, and horn-rimmed glasses — suggests that he is a stereotypical intellectual, perhaps a professor. Of course, as we later find out, he is actually a businessman. The fact that Peter chooses to dress like a member of a different profession in his free time implies that there might be some truth to Jerry’s later speculation that he is unhappy with his job. Albee’s note that Peter’s “dress and his manner suggest a man younger” is also salient (1). Again, that contrast suggests that Peter is unhappy with himself, and is trying to be someone else. This interpretation certainly helps to understand his quick reaction when Jerry suggests he cannot have children - such an assumption draws attention to his age, and perhaps to the true personality he works to disguise even from himself. And of course, this desire to look "younger" foreshadows Peter’s childish reaction when Jerry invades his personal space at the end of the play.
Albee’s initial description of Jerry also provides valuable insight into the character. In Peter’s description, Albee emphasized the physical details of the costume; in Jerry’s description, the character's actual appearance is emphasized less than is the sense that he has been beaten down in life by “a great weariness” (1). In many ways, he lacks the luxury to redefine himself as Peter has. The dialogue of The Zoo Story will emphasize that Peter and Jerry come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and Albee’s stage directions convey this right away by describing the characters’ attitudes rather than their physical appearances. Indeed, Albee even notes that Jerry should not be dressed poorly; instead, he seems to hope that the differences between Peter and Jerry will be conveyed by acting rather than by costumes.
Although Albee’s stage directions minimize the class and education differences between Peter and Jerry, these differences are a very important component of the characters’ dynamic. Early in the play, Jerry confronts Peter about their differences in background by observing that Peter is probably educated, based on his vocabulary and his reading habits. He further pushes social boundaries by asking Peter about his salary. Indeed, many of Jerry’s breaches in etiquette are directly related to this difference in class. By confronting Peter about his income, Jerry makes him self-conscious and forces him to acknowledge his privilege. One can understand this play's arc as a movement towards awareness; Jerry wants Peter to see himself the way that others (like Jerry) see him, not as the man he dresses himself up to be.
Even in the opening minutes of the play, observant audience members will notice Peter’s evolving attitude toward Jerry. Peter frequently becomes annoyed by Jerry’s overbearing behavior. Each time, he immediately quells his irritation by reminding himself that it is illogical to become upset by Jerry’s conversational jabs. Yet each time Peter becomes upset, his reactions become more extreme. His attitude changes quickly from amusement to fury. Although Jerry’s behavior suggests that he is mentally ill, Peter’s rapid mood changes suggest that he may not entirely stable himself. Further, it is possible to think that Jerry is far more deliberate than he seems. In other words, he might not be asking random questions, but in fact asking questions designed to irritate and anger the man he believes Peter to be. Peter's social etiquette requires him to be compliant and polite. Jerry knows this, and in fact makes Peter insist that he wants to talk. He forces Peter to invite the confrontation, which Peter does not because he wants it, but because he feels required to. So Jerry has engineered a situation by exploiting Peter's gentility, precisely so he can then poke holes in that gentility.
The first pages of The Zoo Story establish the animal motif that will appear throughout the play. Jerry questions Peter extensively about his pets, as Jerry clearly believes that a person’s relationship with animals reveals important information about that person's character. He expounds further on this connection later. However, the play also suggests that humans have animalistic potential within. As the story continues, Jerry and Peter reveal their own animalistic sides, until it becomes clear that the play’s title is a double entendre. It refers not only to Jerry’s visit to the Central Park Zoo, but also to Jerry and Peter’s interaction. People, Albee seems to suggest, are nothing more than animals, and the city, which keeps them in close contact, is another kind of zoo. In a situation like this, different types of animals are sure to cause trouble for one another if they are allowed to interact; this is one way to understand the action of the play. Jerry has been let into a cage with a totally different type of animal, and it is his instinct to then wreak havoc for that more privileged beast.
Early critics frequently compared The Zoo Story with the work of Samuel Beckett. In fact, when The Zoo Story was first performed in Berlin in 1960, it was part of a double bill with a Beckett one-act play — Krapp’s Last Tape. Indeed, there are a number of important similarities between The Zoo Story and Beckett’s best-known work, Waiting for Godot. Both plays chronicle the relationship between two antagonistic characters who are forced to spend time together, and more importantly, both plays are absurdist in style. Absurdism is closely associated with existential philosophy. In a typical absurdist story, characters must grapple with the meaninglessness of their circumstances — and by extension, of life in general. Absurdist plots are often driven by the emotions the characters experience as they recognize and accept that their lives are meaningless.
Beckett’s work lends itself well to an absurdist interpretation. In Waiting for Godot, the characters are cartoonish and exaggerated, and their predicament is contrived to make a philosophical point. The Zoo Story, on the other hand, is much more realistic in its approach — although it should be noted that realism and absurdism are not mutually exclusive. Realism is a style, and absurdism is a philosophical orientation. Peter and Jerry have quotidian nuanced personalities and quotidian back stories, and the play’s plot, which revolves around an awkward conversation between strangers, is drawn from a common situation of urban life. It could be said, then, that Albee’s work is innovative because it imports an absurdist outlook to the realist dramatic tradition. That it does this with such seeming ease and naturalness is a testament to its greatness.